Aid Flotilla Due to Reach Gaza Today After Delay in Cyprus

All on board except Turkey Zvi Bar'el, Page 2

The delayed arrival of the international aid flotilla to Gaza has forced most Israel Navy vessels assigned to stop the ships to remain on standby in Haifa.

The flotilla was due to arrive in the region yesterday, but it was held up at a rendezvous point in Cyprus. Now naval officials believe that the ships will reach the Gaza coast this morning.

"The flotilla's message is clear and it will reach the entire world," the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said yesterday at a press conference at the port where the ships were hoping to dock.

"The meaning of the flotilla is that the entire world opposes the siege on the Gaza Strip, and if Israel behaves like pirates and sea-terrorists, we will win."

Some of the Israeli missile boats that set out Friday night returned because of the delay.

Israeli authorities are divided over the way the military should confront the fleet and its organizers. From the defense establishment's standpoint, the top priority is to take over the boats, ensure that there are no terrorists among the passengers, and thoroughly check the vessels for weapons.

But Israeli officials are aware of the potential public relations fallout, so they are doing their best to make the naval operation appear as benign as possible.

In recent days, Israeli diplomats have been trying to prove that there is no shortage of food and equipment in the Gaza Strip. They say the flotilla is not a humanitarian mission.

Officials are stressing that after the ships' cargo is vetted, everything will be transferred to the Strip via the Israel Defense Forces' Gaza District Coordination Office.

As the flotilla approaches, naval officials will call on it to stay out of Gaza's coastal waters. If, as expected, the ships ignore the Israeli instructions, soldiers from the elite naval commando unit will try to take over the vessels.

Adm. Eliezer Marom, the chief of the Israel Navy, has instructed the commander of the naval force to ensure the safety of his personnel and check whether the ships are carrying terrorists or arms. Marom told his officers that the navy has no intention of harming anyone on board.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry will assign nearly 200 immigration and population registry officials to staff border-control inspection booths that have been put up at Ashdod Port, where the activists in the flotilla will be processed.

The passenger terminal at Ashdod Port will be equipped with 20 computer stations to check the passports of the people on board. Ministry employees were told to allow each person to sign a form indicating a desire to leave the country.

Those who sign will be put on airplanes and expelled to their countries of origin at the expense of the state. Those who refuse to sign will be arrested and subject to deportation hearings.

All the activists on the flotilla will be subject to a thorough security check and will be permitted to see a doctor.