Navy, gov't gear up for NGO's voyage to break Gaza blockade

The government has acknowledged that it knows of the planned voyage, but has not disclosed how it intends to respond.

Navy Saar 4 248.88 (photo credit: IDF- Navy)
Navy Saar 4 248.88
(photo credit: IDF- Navy)
While the government is keeping silent about an imminent activists' voyage to "break the siege of Gaza," the navy will undoubtedly react if the vessel closes in on the Gaza shore, which is under a navy blockade, experts said Sunday. As The Jerusalem Post reported last month, a group of American, European and Israeli activists, organized by the Free Gaza Movement NGO, are planning to challenge Israel's blockade by sailing one or more boats from Cyprus to Gaza. The NGO plans to "introduce its international team" for the voyage at a press conference in Nicosia on Monday. The government has acknowledged that it knows of the planned voyage, but has not disclosed how it intends to respond. "We are prepared for every scenario," said Yossi Levi, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Avital Leibovitz of the IDF Spokesman's Office said the military doesn't discuss the Gaza blockade. Ya'acov Bar-Siman-Tov, director of the Swiss Center for Conflict Research Management and Resolution at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said there would likely be some kind of action if the ship continued after a warning, although there would be "no need to fire at them." There was no precedent to indicate what would happen if the vessel or vessels did not respond to an order to halt, he said. Bar-Siman-Tov added that in the past Israel had shot in the air at ships trying to pass, but no boats had yet tried to breach the Gaza blockade. A much less likely possibility was that Israel would allow the vessels to pass through to Gaza in a goodwill gesture, he said. Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Ya'acov Amidror said that the decision concerning the ship would be a political one, not a military one, and that the response would be diplomatic, rather than based on military policy. But Yarden Vatikay, a spokesman in the Prime Minister's Office, evaded questions about the subject, saying only "we're assessing the situation." Pressed further, Vatikay said he did not believe the Free Gaza movement's publicity over the last few weeks would materialize into an actual voyage. Osama Azzaz of the Free Gaza movement has said the government had not attempted to contact his group to discourage it. However, the movement stated in a press release at the weekend that it was not seeking "permission from Israeli authorities" and would not sail "through Israeli territory." Professor Alexander Bligh of the Ariel University Center said Israel would try to avoid any negative press if the boats did reach the area of the blockade. The government says the blockade of the Gaza shore is necessary to prevent terrorists and supplies used for terror from getting to Gaza. Bligh said the blockade is "one of the safest measures against terror." If the ship is prevented from reaching Gaza, "we'll stay for 10 days at sea... then we'll go back to Cyprus and try again," said Free Gaza organizer Greta Berlin at a press conference in Athens last week. The Free Gaza group initially said it would make the trip in two Greek-flagged boats, after raising most of the $300,000 needed for the voyage. Its latest press release spoke of a single boat, however. It said "any attempt to damage the project will be considered an act of aggression against a nonviolent international human rights mission." Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Israel Law Center in Tel Aviv, said that the boat should be suspected of carrying weapons for Hamas. Her organization has sent a letter to the United States Attorney-General's office claiming that US citizens on the trip are violating the US Neutrality Act, which says that military expeditions invading the waters of US allies are illegal. Americans violating the agreement are subject to a fine and up to three years in prison. While the Free Gaza group preaches non-violence, Darshan-Leitner's organization claims that several attendees are associated with the International Solidarity Movement. The Foreign Ministry's Web site says suicide bombers who killed three in a 2003 attack at the entrance to Mike's Place bar in Tel Aviv were connected to activists at ISM. Free Gaza spokesman Paul Larudee said the charges against ISM are false. The activists intend to be persistent, said Larudee, even if they face opposition from the Israeli Navy. Larudee said the group would deliver 100 hearing aids to a Palestinian charity. Foreign Ministry spokesman Noam Katz said supplies are allowed through the blockade, but that the activists who are organized by Free Gaza have not gone through "the right channels" to get them there. "There are regulations about how to transfer humanitarian aid to Gaza, and anybody is welcome to do so," said Katz. "They didn't approach the Israeli authorities with their plans and what they want to bring in." Bligh said he viewed the planned blockade breach as a publicity stunt, and said the government should use it as one, as well. "This is the time to say enough is enough," said Bligh. "I think once and for all we should stop all groups and activity that question our homeland." AP contributed to this report.