Israeli navy practises boarding ships in readiness for Gaza flotilla

The exercise appeared aimed at avoiding the killing of any of the passengers in the flotilla in case the commandos are ordered to board the ships to stop them from heading to Gaza to break Israel's naval siege of the Palestinian enclave.

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TEL AVIV // Israeli naval commandos carried out a wide-ranging exercise yesterday in the takeover of a large ship in preparation for a possible raid of the vessels taking part in the Gaza-bound flotilla that is expected to sail in coming weeks.

The exercise appeared aimed at avoiding the killing of any of the passengers in case the commandos are ordered to board the ships to stop them from heading to Gaza to break Israel's naval siege of the Palestinian enclave.

The simulated takeover of the ship came after months of training by naval commandos along with forces from the police and prison services. It was meant to implement the lessons learned from the deadly attack that the navy carried out in May last year on another Gaza-bound flotilla in which nine Turkish activists were killed.

Israeli media reported that the government was concerned about drawing international condemnation should passengers again be killed in a possible raid, and was preparing a larger force that it hopes would be able to take over the ships much faster.

"The instructions from the political leadership are clear," reported the state-owned military radio station yesterday. "Israel will not allow the boats to break the naval blockade on Gaza, and will take control of them by force."

But even as the Israeli military launched its exercise, it remained unclear whether the ships would sail at all amid US pressure on Turkey to stop their mission.

Yesterday, Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported that the Turkish-based IHH Islamic charity, one of the flotilla's key organisers, is considering cancelling the trip because of the violence in the region, especially amid the growing tide of Syrian refugees racing into Turkey after a fierce government crackdown in Syria.

"We are reconsidering our plans - we cannot close our eyes to the developments on our doorstep," Huseyin Oruc, a board member of the IHH, told the newspaper. The IHH has refurbished the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged boat on which the activists were killed in last year's raid.

Nevertheless, other groups that were also planning to participate in the flotilla were quoted by Israeli media as claiming they were still going ahead with the protest even if IHH drops out.

The activists are expected to meet in Athens this weekend to discuss their plans, according to the newspaper.

The IHH's rethinking of its participation comes after a call by Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, this month to reconsider the flotilla's mission in the light of changes in Gaza's blockade, especially Egypt's more frequent opening of its Rafah border with Gaza.

Israel controls Gaza's waters, air space and all of its border crossings except for Rafah. Israeli media have speculated that Mr Davutoglu's statements may have been spurred by pressure from the US, which has been urged by Israel to launch a diplomatic bid to stop the flotilla.

Gaza is controlled by the Islamic group Hamas, which is regarded by Israel and the US as a terrorist organisation. Israel restricted movement into and out of Gaza in 2006 after Hamas kidnapped one of its soldiers, and implemented a hermetic siege on the border crossings in 2007 after Hamas violently ousted forces loyal to the secular Fatah movement from the enclave.

Israel itself appears to have little influence on Turkey since ties between the two countries sharply deteriorated following last year's assault on the ship.

Yediot Ahronot, Israel's biggest mass-circulation newspaper, reported yesterday that the United States is concerned that a new clash may emerge between Israel and Turkey as a result of the upcoming demonstration. The report said that the White House hoped the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, would be more prepared to improve relations with Israel and help dissuade the ships from trying to break the Gaza blockade following his party's victory in Sunday's parliamentary election.

However, the activists may become more motivated to sail after a report released on the fifth anniversary of Israel's blockade yesterday showing that humanitarian conditions in Gaza are deteriorating, with nearly half of the enclave's labour force out of work last year.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, the agency that issued the report, criticised the Israeli policy that "deliberately impoverishes so many and condemns hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution".

The activists have said that 15 ships would take part in the flotilla, carrying 1,500 people from about 100 countries, humanitarian aid and construction materials.