With organizers of the "Freedom Flotilla" determined to violate Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, it appears more and more likely that the incident may escalate into a military confrontation between Israel and the ruling Hamas regime in Gaza.
Earlier this week, seven senior ministers of the Israeli government announced that Israel will block the ships from entering Gaza and will direct them to the Israeli port city of Ashdod by force, if necessary.
Following the announcement, on Thursday, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General met with the ambassadors of Turkey, Cyprus, Sweden, Ireland and Greece—the countries of departure for the eight ships carrying about 10,000 tons of humanitarian and 750 activists. Israel again invited the organizers to dock at the Ashdod port and offered to transfer the cargo to Gaza, after appropriate examination, in accordance with Israeli and international law. Cyprus is the only country that decided to ban any ships from sailing from its shores.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry stated that if Israel's offer to flotilla leaders is rejected it will "use all the means at its disposal" to prevent the ships from entering the port, although Israel hopes to avoid the use of force.
Organizers of the flotilla completely rejected the offer, and announced on Friday they will continue to head to Gaza despite Israel's warnings.
In preparation for possible conflict, the Commander of the Israeli Navy has begun organizing a series of exercises consisting of gaining control of the ships and bringing them to Israel's shores. During the operation, Israeli forces will take the required steps "in order to protect the soldiers' lives, and make sure that no terrorist agents have been infiltrated into the ships."
The ships will receive additional warnings asking them to stop their journey. If the passengers decide to continue, they will be arrested, brought to Israel, and sent back to their country of origin. The Navy has been instructed to act with "fair judgment," and was told there "is no intention to cause any harm among the hundreds of people expected to arrive."
Viva Palestina (VP) has members participating in the flotilla and has sent three of its own convoys to Gaza over the past 11 months that have delivered millions of dollars to the Hamas government. The group released a statement on its website claiming that the flotilla is entirely humanitarian.
Israel has strongly countered claims of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza—calling the convoy a "cheap political stunt"—and has emphasized it has supplied Gaza with over a million tons of goods. Even leaders of the flotilla have admitted the mission is not humanitarian in nature. Greta Berlin, an organizer of the flotilla, characterized the mission as:
"not about delivering humanitarian supplies, [but] about breaking Israel's siege on 1.5 million Palestinians."
Moreover, Israel points out that items smuggled into Gaza via sea have repeatedly been used by Hamas to attack Israeli civilians. To ensure that this shipment is truly humanitarian, the Israeli government has stated that it intends to inspect the goods prior to transfer to Gaza.
Despite the ongoing posturing by Israeli and flotilla leaders, organizers of the event continue to work closely with Hamas officials in preparation for the flotilla's arrival, and have received support from Hamas activists at rallies and in the Gaza Strip. One of the individuals leading the flotilla, Muhammad Sawalha was formerly a senior Hamas activist in the West Bank before fleeing to Britain.
This week, the Hamas naval police organized a training drill in preparation for an emergency scenario, and the Hamas government distributed 500 invitations for a welcoming celebration to greet the activists. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are helping to prepare for the flotilla's arrival.