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Dozens of vessels sailed yesterday from the Herzliya marina to the beach near Tel Yona, west of Rishon Letzion, in a fleet organizers said was a response to ships that set sail yesterday from Turkey, bound for the Gaza Strip.

"This is a civil initiative and is not connected to any political group," one of the organizers, Mati Freiman, said.

"We would like to present a counter-flotilla to the Turks, who are trying to justify themselves and work for the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and Hamas, while ignoring the rights of other minorities in their own country and ignoring the fact that the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit has been held for almost four years without rights," he said.

The group of ships from Turkey left yesterday for Cyprus; the navy and Military Intelligence estimate that approximately 10 ships will leave Cyprus this Thursday and arrive in the area over the weekend, with about 500 people on board.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak signed an order closing off the zone 20 nautical miles from the Gaza shoreline. The defense establishment said the navy would prevent the fleet from arriving at the Gaza port, but added that for operational reasons they would not say where the ships would be intercepted.

Naval sources said they were concerned that people on board would initiate a provocation that would lead to a shooting incident or violence for the sake of media attention. The Israel Navy crews have been briefed on preventing a decline into violence.

There is also concern that Gazans will try to take dozens of their boats out to sea to meet the aid ships. The navy is expected to act to keep the two groups separate.

The Gush Shalom movement last week asked Barak to cancel his directive to the navy to stop the Turkish flotilla. "The whole world is watching us," the group said. "Israel has no interest in flooding international television channels with pictures of sailors and Israeli commandos fighting with peace activists and humanitarian aid activists, many of whom are well known in their countries."