The IDF on Thursday completed its preparations for countering the international aid flotilla that is heading for the Gaza Strip. Israel announced Thursday that it will prevent the ships from reaching their destination, and warned that it will not hesitate to make use of limited force if it becomes necessary.
Israel considers the effort by international left-wing elements and Islamic organizations as intentional provocation under the guise of humanitarian aid.
Estimates as to the numbers differ, but most point to some 800 participating activists in 10 boats.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Ministry Director General Yossi Gal held a round of explanatory calls with foreign ministers from countries whose citizens are participating in the flotilla, and also with foreign diplomats on Thursday. The Israeli message has been that the activists are welcome to bring the humanitarian aid to the port of Ashdod, where it will be examined and if found suitable will be permitted to enter the Gaza Strip through the land crossings. If the activists try to break the siege, they will be arrested.
Barak and Gal insisted that there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
IDF sources say that a clash with the activists on the ships will produce bad press from Israel's point of view - but they believe that this is inevitable in any eventuality.
The instruction from the political leadership to the Israel Navy is to stop the flotilla from entering the Gaza Strip. From the point of view of the navy, a successful mission would be if they manage to perform their duty in a controlled manner, with minimal use of force.
The basic assumption is that the activists are looking for a clash, and perhaps even a little bloodshed, which will be captured in the media. As far as is known, there are no arms on board the ships.
This will not be the first time the navy has had to take over such ships trying to make their way to the Gaza Strip, but this time the flotilla is larger than before. In previous cases, the government of Ehud Olmert allowed ships to enter the Gaza Strip. A year ago, under Benjamin Netanyahu, a ship was stopped by force and its crew was arrested and deported.
This time the confrontation is expected to be larger, louder and will require more careful and professional handling under the guidance of the top military brass.
In the approaching clash, the complex system of alliances and counter-alliances of the Middle East is beginning to emerge. It does not appear to be coincidental that the Islamist governing party in Turkey is involved, behind the scenes, in dispatching the flotilla, in coordination with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At the same time it is doubtful that it is coincidental that the Israel Air Force held this week exercises with Greece, the traditional rival of Turkey, of the sort that two years ago were carried out mostly in Turkey.
The flotilla is not expected to alter in any substantial way the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. It is mostly a battle of public relations that is meant to strike a blow at Israel. Perhaps if Israel was less eager to confront the activists, some of the media attention would have dissipated. Had the flotilla been allowed in, Hamas would have its day, and the entire affair would evaporate quickly.
However, the basic problem faced by Israel goes far beyond this flotilla. The international community blames Israel for all the problems in the Gaza Strip - more or less. If in the West Bank the occupation is the source of all evil, then in the Gaza Strip the Israeli siege of the territory is considered to be the central problem. Drug addiction in the Gaza Strip? The siege is to blame. Low levels of education? Same thing.
How bad is the situation in the Gaza Strip? Let's say that it was bad enough before the siege. But even with the siege, there is no hunger in the Strip. The Amnesty International report published yesterday points to serious hardships, as did a UNDP report several weeks ago. But recent economic reports suggest that the situation is almost bearable.
Recent visitors to Gaza City were surprised to discover that there are more cars in the streets than before, and that shops and shoppers are more active than ever in the evening hours.
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