Israel Navy preparing to stop two boats heading for Gaza
The Israeli navy was preparing Wednesday to intercept two boats heading for Gaza which have declared they will try to break the Israeli blockade of the strip, months after a similar attempt failed, dpa reported.
Pro-Palestinian groups announced the action, which they are calling Freedom Waves to Gaza and have kept secret until now to avoid Israeli and international action to stop it, in a statement on Wednesday.
The two boats, carrying 27 foreign activists, were "at this moment" in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, said the Free Gaza movement, which had organized past siege-breaking journeys.
One vessel, the Saoirse from Ireland, counted parliamentarians among its passengers. The other, the Tahrir, carried representatives from Canada, the U.S., Australia and Palestine, the movement said.
"While the Tahrir will be delivering much-needed medicines, our primary aim remains to help free Palestinians from the open-air prison known as Gaza," said on-board organizer David Heap, of campaign group Canadian Boat to Gaza, in a press release.
An attempt in July to break the Gaza blockade - denounced by Israel and other countries as a provocation - was foiled when Greece prevented eight boats, calling themselves the Freedom Flotilla 2, from sailing from its ports.
"Our efforts in Greece only fuelled our determination to challenge the imprisonment of the people of Gaza. We said we would continue to sail and so we are," said the Free Gaza statement.
Some of the activists in the latest attempt were the same as those who participated in July.
An Israeli military spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, called the action "the latest provocation" in a long line.
She said Israel would stop them from reaching Gaza, but would give them the opportunity to unload their goods in the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, if they agreed. The activists have refused such offers in the past.
"We have been following those boats for some time. The Israel Navy is prepared to prevent their arrival," she said in a telephone briefing to journalists.
"The blockade is there for security reasons. This is why we need it," she said, noting that a UN report published in early September had declared the blockade legal.
That report also acknowledged that Israeli naval commandos had faced "organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers" when they intercepted a Turkish ship headed for Gaza in May 2010.
But it said the commandos had used "excessive and unreasonable" force in taking over the ship. Eight Turkish pro-Palestinian activists and an American of Turkish descent were killed in that incident, which sparked an Israeli-Turkish diplomatic crisis.
Leibovich also pointed out that in March, Israel had foiled an attempt to smuggle weapons into Gaza by intercepting the Victoria, a German-owned, Liberian-flagged ship sailing from Syria via Turkey to Egypt. The vessel, some 200 nautical miles west off the Israeli coast, had some 3,000 rockets and shells hidden on board.
"You either have a blockade or you don't have a blockade. There is not something in the middle," the spokeswoman said.
"At this point," she said, the boats were "still far", but she could not give an estimated arrival time as it depended on weather conditions and speed.
"Currently they are far form Israel, but they are headed here and they are headed for Gaza," Leibovich added.
The two boats were carrying activists from Canada, Australia, the US, Greece, Palestine, Poland and Egypt. They announced their action as soon as they entered international waters, saying they hoped to reach Gaza's shores "in a couple of days."
The Canadian Boat to Gaza activists said they planned the journey in total secrecy to avoid a repeat of the July failure. Organizer Ehab Lotayef, who was onboard the Tahrir, said they were worried in part about surveillance by pro-Israeli Canadian authorities.
"But we have the wind of public opinion at our back and in our sails, which strengthens our resolve and determination to challenge the illegal blockade of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants," Lotayef added.