A group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators sailing toward Gaza with humanitarian supplies on Thursday have refused a request by the father of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to deliver a package and letter to his son.
Activists rejected Noam Shalit's offer to mediate on their behalf with the government, which has vowed to block the flotilla's entry to Gaza, if they agreed to his request.
A forum of seven senior ministers decided on Wednesday that Israel would attempt to turn back the 'Freedom Flotilla', on course to enter a 20-mile Israeli-imposed exclusion zone off Gaza this weekend.
The government said it would allow the United Nations to transfer the flotilla's humanitarian cargo to Gaza after security inspections at the Israeli port.
Activists responded to the decision by vowing to continue their mission to disrupt Israel's efforts to limit supplies to the Hamas-controlled territory.
Eight ships, including four cargo vessels, were heading toward Gaza in defiance of a three-year Israeli closure on the sliver of desert territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians.
"We are planning on going. This is not going to stop us. The boats are already on their way," said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement.
At Wednesday's meeting, ministers decided that the ships would be directed to Ashdod by force if necessary. The activists would be arrested and deported. Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser offered a dissenting voice, suggesting that the ships should be allowed to dock in the Strip.
The flotilla is expected to approach Gaza by the weekend. A senior source in Jerusalem said the forum of seven convened to discuss potential negative media fallout abroad if the navy intercepts the ships. The ministers met before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left on a trip to Europe and North America.
In a bid to produce more favorable coverage, the forum decided to allow foreign journalists aboard Israel Navy ships during the operation.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak surprised his colleagues at the meeting when he described a suggestion by journalist Eitan Haber, who reportedly proposed that the demonstrators be greeted at Ashdod by women soldiers dressed in white. They would give the activists letters destined for Shalit, after which their ships would be allowed to sail on to Gaza.
Another participant suggested that a collection of rockets that had been fired at the Sderot area from Gaza be put on display at Ashdod Port for the activists and foreign media to see.
The Israel Defense Forces expects that the ships will refuse to retreat and there will be a confrontation at sea with the navy. The flotilla is thought to be carrying nearly 800 passengers, including 350 Turkish nationals.
Most of the others are from European countries and the Muslim world.
Among the passengers are 35 parliamentarians and a number of Israeli Arabs, including the head of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, Mohammed Zeidan; the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, Raed Salah; and Knesset member Hanin Zuabi (Balad ).