Israel gears up for upcoming Gaza flotilla 27Jun11 June 28, 2011 -  27 June 2011

JERUSALEM, June 27 (Xinhua) — Israel and Egyptian authorities have reached an understanding that ships participating in a flotilla to the Gaza Strip this week will be allowed to unload their presumed cargo of humanitarian relief at the Egyptian port of el-Arish. The goods will undergo inspection, and then be transferred overland to Gaza, the Israel Radio reported on Monday.

The agreement, which was formulated with Egypt’s ruling military council, is seen as a joint effort to head off possible violence after nine activists were killed in a confrontation with Israeli troops during a similar flotilla in May last year.

“Israel has decided to adopt the Egyptian option in order to show flexibility and show the world that it has provided every possible, respectable solution to enable the flotilla to achieve its declared goal of transferring humanitarian aid to Gaza,” a source close to the Israeli government told Xinhua on Monday.

In a meeting of his security cabinet on Sunday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again vowed not to allow the flotilla to breach the naval blockade imposed on Gaza in 2007, when Hamas wrestled control of the coastal enclave.

The cabinet also approved allowing the flotilla’s organizers the option of being towed to the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, where their equipment and goods would be inspected prior to transferring to Gaza.

Some 10 ships carrying anywhere from 350 to 600 pro-Palestinian activists, among them European, American and Canadian nationals, are sailing under the auspices of the Free Gaza Movement and the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza. They are scheduled to set sail on Tuesday from Greece and European ports. Barring delays, the sea craft are expected to reach the Gaza coast early Thursday.

Top security officials at Netanyhu’s cabinet meeting on Sunday briefed ministers on the navy’s plans to stop the flotilla, if a forceful takeover is ordered. Ministers were told that the flotilla’s organizers are facing difficulties in organizing ships, insurance and approval to set sail.

On Monday, after deliberation, the cabinet gave the plan its final approval.

“The cabinet members decided that Israel is determined to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza, while maintaining minimal friction with its passengers,” a statement from the Prime Minister ‘s Office read.

Israel’s security establishment has no current information indicating that terrorism-related groups will be participating in the flotilla. Security officials have also assessed that this time, activists on board will resort to passive resistance rather than risk a confrontation with troops.

Regardless of the assessments, in recent months the Israel Navy has been training its commandos to deal with scenarios similar to that which unfolded last May, when dozens of passengers armed with clubs, knives and other cold weapons, assaulted the raiding party.

“We expect the flotilla to set sail later in the week and are preparing for various scenarios, from no violence to extreme violence,” The Jerusalem Post quoted a military source as saying.

A defense official said the navy will stop the ships before they enter Gaza’s territorial waters, if they disregard warnings not to continue on their journey.

The optimistic predictions that violence will not spill out of hand came after Turkey’s IHH organization, which led the last flotilla, recently announced that it would not participate this time around.

IHH officials on Sunday dismissed claims that their decision was due to pressure by the Turkish government, saying the reasons for the cancellation were “purely technical.”

In parallel, tensions between the government and the foreign press corps in Israel emerged over a letter sent by the Government Press Office, urging reporters to refrain from taking part in the flotilla, and calling it “a provocative and dangerous event, the purpose of which is to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Participation would be regarded as “an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into Israel for ten years, to the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions,” the letter read.

The Foreign Press Association in Israel slammed the letter, saying that it “sends a chilling message and raises serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press.”

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