Israel's Defense Ministry proposes confiscating boats that breach Gaza blockade
Government warns of two passengers' alleged ties to Hamas, claims others have smuggled 'chemicals' aboard.
Israel's defense Ministry has proposed setting up a special naval court that could confiscate ships that attempt to break through Israel's naval blockade on Gaza, a move aimed at deterring future flotillas to the Strip.
The proposal, drafted by ministry legal advisor Ahaz Benari, was made in a letter sent by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman at the beginning of the month. Noting that the Justice Ministry had looked into setting up the naval courts, called prize courts, a few years ago, Barak urged Neeman to bring the matter to the cabinet for approval in the near future.
Defense sources said that ship seizures would make it harder for pro-Palestinian activists to rent ships for future flotillas. They also said a prize court could be established very quickly, enabling even ships in the current flotilla to be impounded.
"There's no doubt that impounding vessels is a deterrent measure that could prevent the need to use force against future violations [of the blockade]," Barak wrote.
Senior Israeli officials said at a press briefing on Monday that even though the Turkish organization IHH has withdrawn from the upcoming flotilla to Gaza, information recently obtained by Israel indicates that some passengers are planning on carrying out violent acts.
Since IHH was chiefly responsible for the violence aboard last year's flotilla, its withdrawal had initially seemed to obviate that threat. But it now seems that members of the group will be sailing on some of the ships, along with other Arab and Muslim activists, the officials said.
Two of these activists, they said, have known ties with Hamas: Amin Abu Rashad, who formerly headed a Hamas-linked charity in Holland that was shut down by the Dutch government for financing terror, and Mohammad Hannoun of the Italian ABSPP foundation, which Israel claims is also involved in financing terror.
The information also indicates that flotilla organizers may be stowing chemicals aboard for use against soldiers who board the ships, the officials said, adding that a few extremists among the organizers had been heard threatening in recent days "to spill the blood" of Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
Senior defense officials told Haaretz that the chemicals, including sulfur, are aboard ships carrying French and American passengers, among others."This is a dramatic development," one defense source said. "The picture emerging here is that some of the flotilla participants clearly intend a violent clash."
The diplomatic-security cabinet ordered the IDF on Monday to "act resolutely" to enforce the naval blockade of Gaza by stopping the flotilla, which is due to sail from Greece in the coming days. But it said the army should "avoid friction" with the passengers "as far as is possible."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also decided that Israeli and foreign journalists should be embedded on navy ships involved in stopping the flotilla.
Flotilla activists charged on Monday that one of their ships was deliberately tampered with while it was docked in Greece's Piraeus port.
Israeli-Swedish far-left activist Dror Feiler told Haaretz that a scuba diver who examines the ship on a daily basis discovered on Monday that its propeller shaft, which connects the vessel's transmission to the propeller, had been cut off. Feiler claimed the act was deliberate sabotage, and though the problem can be fixed, it is unclear how long it will take.
Israel continues to condemn the planned flotilla, with Barak calling it on Monday an "unnecessary provocation."
"There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza," he said. "The real problem is the captivity of [soldier] Gilad Shalit and the fact that more rockets threatening southern Israel are continually being amassed there."