Israel's navy will stop a flotilla heading for Gaza with 10,000 tons of supplies and pro-Palestinian activists intent on breaking a three-year blockade of Gaza, officials said Wednesday, in the first definitive Israeli pledge to stop the boats.
The officials said if the flotilla of eight ships does not turn back, the boats will be hauled to an Israeli port, the activists sent back to their countries and the supplies transferred to Gaza by land.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity according to military rules.
The flotilla is expected to approach Gaza over the weekend. Organizers say they are hauling supplies including building materials that are not allowed into the territory because of the blockade. Greta Berlin, one of the organizers, said the cargo ships are carrying cement, prefab homes, lumber, window frames, paper for printing school books, children's toys, a full dentist's office, electric wheelchairs and high-end medical equipment.
Among the passengers are lawmakers from a dozen European countries, a Holocaust survivor in her 80s, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a retired U.S. army colonel, Berlin said.
Israel and Egypt cordoned off the territory three years ago after the Islamic militant Hamas overran the territory. Despite the blockade, Israel allows in what it classifies as "humanitarian supplies" and claims there is no crisis of shortages in Gaza. Israel charges the flotilla is a propaganda exercise.
After letting a few boats reach Gaza, the Israelis have intercepted several since December 2008, following the same procedure the officials outlined in their plans for the current attempt.
The officials indicated they were aware of the potential public relations fiasco that would follow a violent confrontation on the high seas between heavily armed Israeli sailors and civilian activists, saying the navy commander instructed his forces to "operate with the utmost sensitivity and not be drawn into needless provocations."
They said the boat crews would be warned several times as they approach Gaza, but Israeli forces would board them and take control if necessary.