Israeli gunships head to sea to block flotilla

Last Updated: Saturday, May 29, 2010 - 10:38

Haifa: Israeli gunships headed out to sea on
Saturday to stop a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists from
reaching the Gaza Strip, the military said, setting the stage
for what could become a dramatic showdown on the high seas.

Israel`s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said the
country was prepared to stop the flotilla "at any cost." He
called the aid mission a provocation and urged the
international community to show understanding for the tough
response.

"We really have all determination and political will to
prevent this provocation against us," he said. "I think that
we`re ready at any cost ... to prevent this provocation."

Israeli military officials have said they will intercept
the ships, escort the vessels to shore and give the activists
the choice of deportation or going to jail.

The officials say they hope the situation will be
resolved peacefully, but they are prepared to use force if
necessary. Masked naval commandos have been trained for the
mission, and Israel has built a large makeshift detention
center in a southern port to process the activists.

The activists, among them a Nobel peace laureate, are
trying to draw attention to a 3-year-old Israeli blockade of
the Gaza Strip _ imposed after Hamas militants violently
seized control of the territory. They say they are carrying
tons of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Greta Berlin, one of the organizers of the effort, said a
total of seven ships were headed to Gaza, after an eighth
vessel suffered a malfunction and had to turn back.

The organizers` website said the flotilla remained off
the southern coast of Cyprus, some 250 miles northwest of
Gaza, this evening. Berlin said the flotilla would halt under
darkness, and resume the journey early Saturday. They were
expected to reach Israeli waters possibly later tomorrow, she
said.

The ships originally embarked from Turkey, Greece and
other European ports.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas,
which has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, from
rearming.

It rejects claims that a humanitarian crisis is brewing
in Gaza, saying it allows more than enough food and medicine
into the strip. Critics, however, say the blockade has crushed
Gaza`s economy, eliminated some 100,000 jobs and prevented the
territory from repairing the destruction caused by an Israeli
military offensive early last year.

Israel has reached out to its Mediterranean neighbors to
stop the flotilla from approaching. Turkey, whose president
has harshly condemned Israel`s Gaza offensive, has rejected
the gesture.

PTI



First Published: Saturday, May 29, 2010 - 10:38

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