JERUSALEM //A video of an Israeli gay-rights activist portraying a Gaza-bound flotilla as homophobic Hamas supporters has turned out to be a hoax. At least two flotilla ships docked in Greece have recently been "sabotaged". And the peace fleet's activists, who say they disavow violence, are now being called "radicals" carrying "dangerous incendiary chemicals" by Israel's military.
According flotilla organisers, all is evidence of a stepped-up campaign by an Israeli government desperate to prevent a breach of its blockade on the Palestinian territory. "If you can't stop this thing through administrative ways, then what do you do next? You sabotage," said Jane Hirschmann, an organiser involved with the Audacity of Hope, an American boat.
"And that's what we're seeing."
Israel is extremely wary of a repeat of its raid on a similar aid flotilla last year, which left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead. It has been conducting a diplomatic offensive to persuade foreign governments to pressure their citizens from participating in the flotilla, a collection of about 10 boats carrying 350 people from as many as 22 countries.
Its military has also flexed its muscle in recent weeks, holding drills at sea in preparation.
Those efforts have received unofficial support from Israeli non-governmental organisations, such as the Israel Law Centre. The organisation issued a complaint against the seaworthiness of the Audacity of Hope, delaying the vessel's departure, and has gone after maritime insurance and telecommunications companies involved.
But as activists have responded by vowing to carry on to Gaza, the pressure, in the form of PR hoaxes, media accusations and alleged sabotage, has intensified. During the past two days, the propellers on two vessels were mysteriously damaged. An unknown assailant damaged a pipe on one in such a way, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported yesterday, that "an explosion might have occurred once the ships set sail, had it gone unnoticed".
Many flotilla participants are calling it an act of Israeli-perpetrated sabotage, said Joseph Dana, who is on assignment with the flotilla for The Nation, a US magazine. Participants on at least one boat have set up their own boat-protection teams in response.
"Organisers and passengers alike have been defiant in their desire to sail from Greece in the coming days," he said.
That defiance was described this week by a flurry of Israeli media reports, often using unnamed sources, as an intent to harm Israeli soldiers while sailing to Gaza.
"Coming to kill" was the headline of Maariv newspaper, which, along with others, on Tuesday reported that the activists had stored dangerous chemicals such as sulphur to use on Israeli soldiers.
The deadly assessment received support by comments on Monday by a military spokesperson, Lt Col Avital Leibovitz. She went so far as to say that there "are radical elements on board the American boat who have said they want to kill Israeli soldiers". One of the boats, she added, was "carrying dangerous incendiary chemicals" to be used on soldiers.
However, according to local media yesterday, cabinet ministers have disputed these claims and say they were not briefed with such security threats.
The Maariv daily reported ministers calling the dire assessments of the flotilla "spin" that was drummed by the office of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. One of the reasons, the daily quoted one unnamed minister as saying, was so the prime minister could "apply pressure on the international community so that governments will prevent the ships from leaving for the flotilla from the outset".
So far, the public-relations effort has seemed clumsy. Mr Netanyahu on Monday backtracked on a threat to ban journalists covering the flotilla for a decade after fierce criticism from the country's Foreign Press Association.
It also has bordered on the bizarre. In one video distributed on the internet, an Israeli actor posing as a gay -rights claims flotilla participants turned him down because his sexuality.Bloggers, such as Max Blumenthal, and the Electronic Intifada website say evidence suggests the video may have received support from Israel's government. One of its most eager promoters works in Mr Netanyahu's office, Mr Blumenthal noted on his blog.
While Israeli officials deny involvement in the video, in general, said Tamir Schaefer, a professor of communications and political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel's stepped-up response to the flotilla is rooted in fear of international isolation.
Last year's deadly flotilla raid, he said, was "really was costly to Israel in terms of international public opinion and the position in the international community".
"Nobody really thinks rockets will be on this flotilla," he said. "So it's not really an issue of security, and not so much legal, but mostly public relations."