Israeli warships were yesterday on full alert in the Mediterranean to prevent an eight-vessel flotilla carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists and an estimated 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies reaching the coast of Gaza.
Naval vessels were expected to confront the flotilla of cargo and passenger ships later today with the intention of diverting it to the Israeli port of Ashdod and away from its intended destination of Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The flotilla is the largest attempt yet to circumvent the three-year-old Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
While the Israeli authorities have indicated they want to minimise the risk of violence, Israeli media reported yesterday that they are prepared to take over the vessels by force if they ignore warnings not to cross from international waters into a 20 mile exclusion zone enforced by Israel along Gaza's coast.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused the participants of mounting a "cheap publicity stunt" and said that if they had been "really interested in the well-being of the people of Gaza they would have accepted the offers of Egypt or Israel to transfer humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, along with the other 15,000 tons sent every week."
Israel has previously said that if the flotilla agreed to head for the port of Ashdod it would send the aid supplies on to Gaza. Ordinarily, supplies to the Gaza strip are subject to a strict blockade that excludes most commercial goods, although those conditions would not necessarily apply to the flotilla.
But Edward Peck, a retired US diplomat who argued strongly against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, told The Independent from one of the vessels that the purpose of the flotilla was entirely humanitarian. "The boats are unarmed, the passengers are unarmed, and they pose no threat to Israel," he said by satellite phone 10 miles south west of Limassol.
Mr Peck said that one of the vessels, a freighter, had taken on a cargo in Athens of 180 motorised wheelchairs, 150 prefab dwellings and two water purification installations, plus medical supplies. "I have been on several trips to the Middle East to promote a resolution but I wanted to do something tangible instead of just talking," he said. He added he had heard unconfirmed reports that three vessels had mechanical problems.
The Israeli authorities have created a temporary detention centre in Ashdod for arrested passengers. Detainees are likely to face the choice of summary deportation or a trial in Israeli courts.
What's allowed into Gaza...
Fabric Softener: As well as other household and bathroom products, including shampoo and facial scrubs.
Wood: As long as it's intended for use in doors or windows – but not if it's suitable for larger-scale construction.
Canned Foods: Such as beans and meats, although canned fruits are excluded from the category.
...and what the blockade keeps out
Jam: Because it could be used to produce other goods for export. The same applies to fresh meat.
Musical Instruments: Because they are not classed as "basic humanitarian supplies".
Donkeys: And other live animals including cattle and chicks (but chick transportation cartons are permitted).