TEL AVIV // Organisers of a planned Gaza-bound aid flotilla yesterday slammed as false Israeli reports that the ships' passengers plan to use violence against Israeli soldiers, accusing Israel of looking for an excuse to raid their vessels.
Yesterday, the three major Israeli newspapers cited senior military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity and charged that new intelligence obtained by Israel shows that some of the activists on the boats are plotting to attack Israeli forces who may come aboard. Additionally, they said that chemicals such as sulphur have been loaded onto the ships to use against the soldiers.
Last year, nine Turkish activists died in a botched Israeli commando operation on a Turkish-flagged ship that was part of a six-vessel flotilla heading to Gaza to attempt to breach Israel's blockade of the Palestinian enclave.
The reports in the Israeli press yesterday marked a reversal from previous Israeli assessments that no violence is expected from the passengers of the upcoming mission.
The reports said that Israel now also expected activists from the IHH, a Turkish aid group whose members took a lead role in the previous convoy, to join this year's protest. The reports added that two activists with close ties to Hamas, the Islamic group that rules Gaza and which Israel views as a terrorist organisation, will come on board the ships.
Dror Feiler, an Israeli-born artist who lives in Sweden and who helped organise the flotilla, told an Israeli military radio station yesterday that all of the convoy's participants have signed a "non-violence declaration." He added that the allegations are "an Israeli attempt to find an excuse to use violence" against the activists.
Israel, which has been concerned of drawing the ire of the international community should it again become engaged in a violent clash with the ships' activists, is also taking steps to prevent future Gaza-bound flotillas from sailing.
The defence ministry is considering setting up a special naval court that would have the power to seize vessels involved in trying to violate the Israeli blockade of Gaza's territorial waters, according to a report yesterday in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. The report said that defence minister Ehud Barak proposed the idea in a letter to justice minister Yaakov Neeman at the start of June and urged him to bring the issue to a vote in a cabinet meeting as soon as possible in order to try to confiscate vessels in the upcoming flotilla.
The risk of such ship seizures, according to Mr Barak's letter, would make it harder for activists to rent out boats for future protests.
"There is no doubt that impounding vessels is a deterrent measure that could take away the need to use force against future violations [of the blockade]," the report cited Mr Barak's letter as saying.
As another measure to contain any international criticism that may be spurred by a possible clash on the ships, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, this week also ordered the military to allow for Israeli and foreign reporters to be embedded on navy ships involved in stopping the flotilla.
The Israeli attempts to prevent the flotilla from sailing come as the country faced accusations in the US yesterday of launching a public relations campaign this week that included distributing fake videos on YouTube aimed at weakening international support for the protest.
One three-minute-long video features a man who calls himself Marc and who claims that activists refused to allow him to board the ships because he was gay.
The man said in the video that he understood why his request was denied after he discovered that the protest's organisers had strong ties to Hamas, and added that Hamas's "foreign minister has called homosexuals a minority of perverts, mentally and morally sick." He also claimed that the flotilla's participants are "hugging" Hamas despite the group's record in shutting down human rights organisations and undermining the rights of women.
But Max Blumenthal, a US journalist and blogger, wrote on his blog that he has found evidence that the video was initially distributed through Facebook by an Israeli public-relations expert named Neil Lazarus whose clients include Israeli government ministries.
He also said that he had discovered that the character in the video was an actor.