Israel may let new flotilla reach Gaza


Israel is considering allowing the Freedom Flotilla 2, due to sail next month, to reach Gaza, to prevent a repeat of last summer’s clash between flotilla participants and Israeli forces.

A document drawn up by the foreign ministry in Jerusalem and presented to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested as one option allowing the vessels to reach Gaza without interference.

Such a scenario, it was argued, would not undermine the legality of Israel’s naval blockade imposed on the Hamas-controlled strip. As proof, foreign ministry officials noted that when Ehud Olmert was prime minister several vessels were permitted to reach Gaza.

Another alternative presented to Mr Netanyahu is to have Cypriot forces carry out security checks on the flotilla. If the vessels were not carrying weapons, they would be allowed to proceed.

According to reports, Turkey’s IHH organisation is planning a large flotilla to mark the one-year anniversary of last year’s interception. Six vessels were boarded by Israeli commandos on May 31st, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish activists when clashes broke out on the main vessel, the Mavi Marmara. The lead vessel on this year’s flotilla is again expected to be the Mavi Marmara, which will be accompanied by 15 vessels and nearly 1,000 activists from dozens of countries.

Irish supporters have reportedly purchased a vessel to take part in the flotilla. Irish activists due to sail include former Fianna Fáil TD Chris Andrews and his party colleague Senator Mark Daly, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Left Alliance TD Richard Boyd Barrett, Sinn Féin councillor Gerry MacLochlainn from Derry and artist Felim Egan.

Israel is keen to avoid a repeat of last year’s clash which soured relations with Turkey and forced Israel to significantly ease the restrictions on what it allowed in to Gaza. Over recent months, officials said that a new flotilla will not be allowed to reach Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu told European ambassadors this week that the flotilla was a provocation. “This is not a peace flotilla but a deliberate provocation to seek to ignite this part of the Middle East. You should transmit to your governments that this flotilla must be stopped,” he said. Israeli officials stressed that any genuine humanitarian assistance can be delivered overland to Gaza via the Israeli-controlled crossing points.

Israel has contacted all the states where activists are organising, including Ireland, in an effort to persuade them to co-operate with Jerusalem to stop the sailing. So far these efforts have not borne fruit.

Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, Gabi Levy, met foreign ministry officials in Ankara this week to express Israeli concerns.

In tandem with the diplomatic moves, the army continued preparations to intercept a new flotilla.

Operation Green Pastures is aimed at stopping the vessels as far as possible from Gaza. Military sources said the army was working on “new methods” to deal with the activists, but warned that despite the planning there was a “high probability” of casualties this time around as well.

Arthur Beesley adds: After US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration was planning a new push to promote a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal, Middle East envoy Tony Blair said it was important to revive the process “as best we can”. “I hope very much that in the coming weeks, because I think this is very urgent, we will see an attempt to revive the political process in a way that gives us a chance of putting together the state-building exercise that we are advocating,” he said.

Mr Blair was speaking to reporters in Brussels after a meeting of the international donor group for the Palestinians. The group, chaired by Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store, welcomed the joint World Bank, IMF and UN assessment that the Palestinian Authority was “above the threshold” for a functioning state in key sectors.

While the authority’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, welcomed that report as being akin to a “birth certificate” for a Palestinian state, Mr Blair said that could happen only through negotiation. “What we need to go along with this now obviously is a credible political negotiation, so that the politics can start to help and support the changes that are happening on the ground,” he said.

“If we can achieve a political process that in a way matches what is going on the ground . . . That is the optimum outcome and that is what we want to see.”