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Israel is not currently planning to stop or inspect two boats full of left-wing activists when they leave Gaza, because there is no intelligence indicating that the activists plan to smuggle wanted terrorists out of the Strip.

The activists do apparently plan to smuggle out two students who received Fulbright scholarships in the United States, but were denied U.S. visas on security grounds. However, the defense establishment's current thinking is that a clash over this issue would simply play into the activists' hands by generating media attention.

At Washington's request, Israel has already allowed five other Fulbright scholars to leave Gaza.

The decision not to stop the boats from reaching Gaza was made last Wednesday night in a phone call between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But as of the weekend, defense officials had still not ruled out stopping the boats for inspection when they leave the Strip, for fear that wanted terrorists may escape on them.

Wednesday's decision followed several weeks in which the defense establishment had explored various options for preventing the boats from docking, including diplomatic efforts to persuade Cyprus to prevent them from sailing - which failed - and nonviolent means of persuading the boats to turn around before reaching Gaza. Throughout these discussions, however, defense officials had expressed opposition to using force, reasoning that a well-publicized clash between the Israel Defense Forces and unarmed activists was exactly what the latter wanted.

IDF officers explained to Haaretz that there were no grounds for using force, because the boats presented no security risk: None of the activists was known to be involved in terrorist activity, and intelligence assessments deemed them unlikely to try to smuggle arms into Gaza. Indeed, if Israel had a coast guard, the IDF would not have been involved at all in the incident, since the issue is purely one of law and order, they said.

The General Staff therefore concluded that forcibly preventing the boats from landing would be a mistake, and would merely play into the activists' hands. That recommendation was endorsed by Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and later by Barak.

However, defense sources stressed, this does not mean Israel will respond in the same way to other such attempts. "The Palestinians shouldn't think we'll enable them to bring in another 'Karine A' in the future," said one, referring to the ship laden with weapons that the navy intercepted en route to Gaza in 2002.

DPA adds: Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa praised the boat activists Sunday for successfully challenging Israel's blockade on Gaza. "These Palestinian supporters who have endured hardship to deliver their message to the world and to express their objection to the harsh siege on Gaza, deserve every support and appreciation," Moussa said in a statement. He added that he hoped they would spark a broader movement to defy the blockade by Arab and international activists.