Israel Launches Campaign to Halt Lebanon Flotilla Bound for Gaza

Foreign Ministry instructs Israeli ambassadors to ask senior American, UN, EU and Egyptian officials to pressure Syria and Lebanon to stop latest planned flotilla from sailing from Lebanon to Gaza.

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Israel launched a diplomatic effort yesterday to keep the latest planned flotilla from sailing from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip.

The Foreign Ministry instructed Israeli ambassadors to ask senior officials in the United States, United Nations, European Union and Egypt to pressure Syria and Lebanon to stop the flotilla, which Israel deems a "provocation" in light of its recent decision to end its civilian blockade of Gaza.

Syria has been included because senior Israeli officials say it is helping to organize the flotilla. Hezbollah is also involved, they charged.

"This is a clear and organized provocation," one official said.

Officially, the flotilla is being organized by Palestinian businessman Yasser Kashlak, who last month tried and failed to organize another flotilla from Lebanon. The two ships are slated to sail from Tripoli by the end of this week.

Israel's message to international diplomats is that it views this flotilla particularly gravely because it is sailing from the port of an enemy country.

Last week, Egypt cooperated with Israel in diverting a Libyan aid ship headed to Gaza to the Egyptian port of El-Arish, and so Israeli officials are hopeful it will do the same this time.

Israel is still refusing to release three Turkish ships captured in a May 31 raid on an earlier Gaza-bound flotilla, saying it will not do so without a written pledge from the Turkish government that the ships will not be used for such activities again. That raid, which resulted in the death of nine Turks after passengers attacked the Israeli boarding party, tore gaping holes in the already tattered Israeli-Turkish relations.

A representative of the IHH organization, which sponsored that flotilla, told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that in the past, Israel has demanded such guarantees only from the groups that organized the ships, not from the governments of the countries whence they sailed.

The Mavi Marmara entering the port of Ashdod.Credit: Reuters

Ankara, for its part, is demanding that Israel supply tugs to tow the ships to Turkey. Israel has yet to respond to this demand, and is apparently unwilling to discuss it until the Turks respond to Israel's demand for a written guarantee.

Turkish officials said they believe Israel is using its possession of the ships to prove its claim that the government in Ankara played an active role in the flotilla. Turkey insists the flotilla was strictly a private initiative by IHH.

Turkey is also still demanding that Israel apologize for the raid's casualties - a demand Israel has rejected on the grounds that no casualties would have occurred had its soldiers not been attacked. Recently, however, Ankara has slightly softened its stance, saying it will hold off on insisting on an apology until Israel completes its own probe of the raid.

Ankara is angry that Washington has not launched its own inquiries, as one of the nine killed in the incident was an American citizen of Turkish descent. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan even charged that Washington is indifferent "because he was a Turk."

American officials say they have asked Turkey for the autopsy report, which is necessary to conduct any probe, but that Ankara refuses to hand it over.

IHH, for its part, is seeking to file lawsuits against Israel over the flotilla in international courts. The group recently invited Israeli lawyers to a conference to discuss how this could best be done.

One of the invitations went to Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which eventually decided to decline the invitation on the grounds that Israel, like many other countries, defines IHH as a terrorist organization. Attendance at such a conference could result in legal proceedings against the Israeli participants.

Private Israeli attorneys invited to attend evidently declined for the same reason, and a source familiar with the guest list said that, in the end, it includes no Israelis.

However, IHH claims the list does include lawyers from 25 other countries, including the United States, Britain, Egypt and Indonesia.

Meanwhile, American activists are trying to raise funds for their own ship to Gaza, which they plan to call "The Audacity of Hope," after U.S. President Barack Obama's best-selling memoir.



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