Israel Navy Makes Contact With Flotilla Heading Toward Gaza

The Israel Navy made contact with the international aid flotilla to Gaza late last night, as organizers of the five-ship convoy said they were planning to peacefully resist the navy's attempts to board, search and take command of the ships.

The organizers said there would be no violent resistance.

"Our message is a message of peace, and we won't use any violent means, but we also don't plan to welcome the occupation soldiers with flowers and rice," they said in a statement.

If the protesters on board don't heed the navy's calls to turn around, the naval commandos have been instructed to board the ships and search them for terrorists and weapons. Then they will take command of the vessels and sail them to the Ashdod port. The navy has been ordered to use the minimum force possible to overcome any resistance, and to avoid causing harm to innocent people.

"We fully intend to go to Gaza regardless of any intimidation of threats of violence against us," said Huwaida Arraf, one of the organizers. "They are going to have to forcefully stop us."

The flotilla, carrying 10,000 tons of aid and hundreds of protesters aiming to defy the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, left a rendezvous point in international waters off Cyprus early yesterday. Led by a Turkish vessel, the group of ships has been organized by pro-Palestinian groups and a Turkish human rights organization.

The ships are carrying goods that Israel has banned from Gaza, like cement and other building materials. The activists said they also were carrying hundreds of electric-powered wheelchairs, prefabricated homes and water purifiers.

"The flotilla is together and is on the move," Greta Berlin, spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, one of the organizers, said yesterday.

The navy does not expect the ships' passengers to be armed, but is prepared to deal with such an eventuality. The navy also assumes that a relatively large show of force will reduce any complications and keep the confrontation short. A similar, albeit smaller, flotilla was halted by the navy about a year ago.

Many of the participants are Turkish citizens, but some are citizens of countries classified as enemy countries or of states that have no diplomatic ties with Israel.

The navy's legal advisers have said its personnel are allowed to board the ships only when they get to the closed maritime zone within 20 miles of the Gaza coast.

Several Israeli and foreign journalists will be reporting from the naval vessels, to provide a counterpoint to the coverage from the protesters on the ships. Thus far, the flotilla has not received as much coverage in most countries as it has in the Israeli and Arab press.

It appeared yesterday that organizers realized that the delays that kept the ships from sailing as planned - they were due to arrive in the vicinity on Saturday, but were held up in Cyprus - have drawn attention away from their cause.

Israeli security officials want to deport the convoy participants as quickly as possible, and say they will be flown back to their home countries at Israel's expense. Those who refuse to be deported will undergo extensive legal proceedings that could include jail time. The passengers have said they do not intend to cooperate with Israel.

The defense establishment has spent millions of shekels in preparation for stopping the flotilla. Some of the money has gone toward preparing the naval vessels and the personnel involved in stopping the ships. A substantial amount of the funds has gone toward building the compound at the Ashdod port where the army is planning to take the protesters it detains.