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Israeli warships, protest boats to face off with aid flotilla

May 27, 2010 12:56 P.M. (Updated: May 29, 2010 8:47 A.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - Just as Israeli ministers agreed to intercept the Freedom Flotilla 20 nautical miles off the Gaza coast and bar it from arriving in Gaza's main port, an Israeli activist group said its members would also await the flotilla, with one of their own.

The Wednesday announcements bring internal Israeli controversy over the ships to a new level, with officials saying the Freedom Flotilla ships would be directed to the port of Ashdod "by force if necessary," adding that activists and ship personnel would be arrested and expelled from the country.

At the same time, an Israeli group calling itself StandWithUs, said it would send boats out into the Mediterranean to intercept the Freedom flotilla themselves as a protest against what they call the "anti-Israel flotilla."

StandWithUs member and protest flotilla organizer Roman Baron said the aim of his group was to "expose the real human rights problem—Gaza must be freed from the chains of the Hamas dictatorship and its Iranian sponsors." He said Israeli activists were ready for a "duel at sea of facts versus propaganda."

The Israeli group issued a statement Wednesday calling the flotilla a propaganda campaign designed to promote Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip.

The StandWithUs statement accused the Freedom Flotilla of feigning concern for humanitarian suffering in Gaza, but said "in fact the boats are a media stunt to get international attention and support for Hamas in Gaza."

"If the activists were really interested in delivering their donated goods, they could easily do it through legal channels. The Israeli government offered to deliver them through approved crossings and procedures, but the activists’ purpose is to smear Israel and support Hanyieh’s Hamas regime, not help Gazans," Baron said.

The Israeli cabinet said it would unload and inspect the Freedom Flotilla cargo, and have some sent to Gaza via the United Nations, Israel's daily newspaper Haaretz reported.

It was not clear what the rationale behind the decision to block the flotilla was, though reports earlier in May by British newspapers revealed court documents where Israel described the blockade of the Gaza Strip as a "central pillar in the armed conflict with Hamas."

The decision to block the flotilla, however, flies in the face of the 2005 claim that Israel fully withdrew from the Gaza Strip.

Organizers of the first Free Gaza boats in August of 2008 set out to test the Israeli claim that the Gaza Strip was no longer occupied, and spurred a large debate within the Israeli government, over what to do with the planned voyage.

The first, second and third aid boats docked safely in the port at Gaza City, while the fourth was rammed by Israeli warships and towed to Ashdod, and the fifth through seventh voyages were similarly prevented from accessing the port.

While the reasoning of the Israeli government remains unknown, Director of the StandWithUs Israel Michael Dickson explained the organization's decision: "These so-called human rights activists who plan to meet Haniyeh are directly supporting Iranian president Ahmadinejad and his genocidal threats against Israel. They are either uninformed or they are enemies of peace and human rights.

“If the activists had done their homework instead of believing Hamas propaganda, they would also have found out that their assistance isn’t needed. There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza," he said.

The StandWithUs statement came out on the same day as the 2010 Amnesty International report, which called Israel's blockade of Gaza illegal, and said it holds Israel accountable for an "ongoing humanitarian crisis" in Gaza.

Dickson cited a Financial Times report, alleging a "'glut' of goods in Gaza" that forced "prices for food, luxury items, and clothing [to plummet]." He said announcements of an Olympic sized swimming pool "fancy restaurants and luxury goods" further underlined the fact that the Freedom Flotilla was not truly a "humanitarian mission."

"Hamas just has to end its war, accept Israel’s existence as the Jewish State, and agree to past PLO-Israel peace agreements," he said, adding that in the mean time, the group would continue what it called its "education campaign" and meet the Freedom Flotilla at sea.

The confrontation could be picked up by global media, with Israeli cabinet members giving the okay for media presence on the naval ships set to intercept the flotilla.

For their part, the final ship to weigh anchor and join the flotilla, the Sofia from Sweden, issued the following statement from Greece upon the boat's departure: "Israel has threatened to stop this humanitarian solidarity action - by violence if necessary. We bow not the occupying power but assert our right to use the oceans for the international break the illegal and inhuman blockade of Gaza."
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