Israel plans its response to ‘Free Gaza’ ship

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 22, 2008

The Israeli government will try to portray the Free Gaza movement's attempt to run a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip as both non-humanitarian and a project designed to question Israel's right to exist.

Israeli officials have kept a low profile over their response to the plan to sail two ships to Gaza loaded with hearing-aids and some 40 activists, including former UK premier Tony Blair's sister-in-law, Lauren Booth.

They prefer not to draw too much media attention to what they are calling "a stunt".

The two ships, the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty, are expected to sail from Cyprus towards Gaza some time next week, though the voyage had been planned for August 5. The organisers cited bad weather as the reason for the delay, but an Israeli government source told the JC that it was due to the movement's reluctance to sail while the international media were focused on the Olympics and conflict in the Caucasus.

Israeli Navy boats are expected to repel the two ships if they approach Gaza's territorial waters, which have been closed for the last year, following Hamas's bloody takeover of the Strip. If they insist on trying to run the blockade, the Israeli Navy will most likely take control of the boats and sail them to an Israeli port. Though suggestions were made in internal discussions to ignore the two ships and let them through, it was decided that this would be setting a precedent.

Over the last month-and-a-half, following the Egyptian-brokered tahadiya ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, supplies have been allowed through the crossings between Israel and Gaza. However, subsequent talks have broken down and the supplies are limited, while the Rafah crossing with Egypt has remained closed.

The Israeli PR tactic will be to claim that this is not a humanitarian operation but a political media campaign aimed at questioning Israel's very right to existence.

Officials have pointed to the mission statement on the movement's website referring to Israel's foundation as the "Nakba" (catastrophe) as proof of the true intentions of the organisers.

They have also highlighted the fact that no major humanitarian organisation is taking part. As part of this policy, the Israeli Foreign Ministry contacted the movement and offered to have their shipment transferred through the land crossings. Their refusal to take up this offer was seen as further proof, according to the government, of the real character of the operation.

The movement turned down the offer due to "Israel's deplorable track record" and instead invited Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to join them on their voyage.

Last updated: 5:42pm, August 26 2008