Israel to repel new Gaza flotilla
Jerusalem - Israel has ordered its navy to stop an international 10-ship aid flotilla from breaching a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, but also to avoid clashes with activists on board.
It also dropped threats to punish reporters aboard the aid ships, a year after Israeli marine commandos stormed the lead ship of a previous flotilla, killing nine Turkish nationals in a move widely condemned across the world.
"The state of Israel will be determined in stopping the flotilla's arrival in Gaza," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement on Monday.
But forces would be ordered to do so "with minimal confrontation, as far as possible, with those on board the ships", it said without elaborating.
Netanyahu added that a threat to punish foreign journalists in the convoy by barring them from entering Israel for up to 10 years would not be carried out.
The premier's office said he had been unaware of the original warning.
"When this was brought to the prime minister's attention, he ordered that normal procedures taken against infiltrators and those entering illegally not be applied to journalists," the statement said.
Netanyahu also said he would allow reporters to accompany naval vessels sent to intercept the flotilla "in order to allow transparent and trustworthy coverage of the events".
Organisers said that between 30 and 50 journalists were expected to sail with the flotilla.
Israeli military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz told journalists on Monday that military intelligence had information the flotilla would harbour "radical elements".
"There are radical elements on board the American boat who have said they want to kill Israeli soldiers," she said.
"We also know that one of the boats is carrying dangerous incendiary chemicals that these human rights militants want to use against Israeli soldiers.
"If the lives of our soldiers are put in danger, they will act. But we would prefer to avoid physical contact," Leibovitz added.
A closed-door cabinet meeting on Monday was the second session on the flotilla in as many days.
A day earlier, ministers were briefed on the military's preparations for the flotilla, which is expected to sail from Greece later this week.
The ministers decided not to permit the ships to anchor in Gaza, although they would be allowed to unload their cargo at the Israeli port of Ashdod or Egypt's El-Arish port for checks, media reports said.
If no weapons or ammunition were found, the cargo would be transferred to the Gaza Strip.
Public radio said Cairo had already agreed to allow the ships to dock at El-Arish, which lies about 50km west of the Gaza border.
In Greece, the organisers said one of the boats was seriously damaged in what they termed an act of "sabotage".
"The propeller and the transmission shaft of the Greek-Swedish boat were cut," Dimitris Plionis told AFP.
The organisers said they would try to bring the boats together off Crete on Thursday or Friday before heading for Gaza.
Israel Hayom newspaper quoted navy chief Eliezer Marom as telling ministers that his men were better prepared than they were ahead of the deadly raid in May last year.
'Ready to stop flotilla'
"Our forces are ready to stop the flotilla and not to allow the ships to reach Gaza," an unidentified political source also told the paper.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and several international leaders have urged the flotilla not to set sail, and Washington has warned US nationals not to join the attempt to break the Israeli embargo.
"We have said that Israel has a right to defend itself against armed smuggling, but we have called on all sides for restraint, and we hope that we don't end up in the same situation we were in last year," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
"Our advice to all parties has been the same: that this is dangerous, that this is provocative," Nuland added.
At least 350 pro-Palestinian activists from 22 countries including Canada, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain are set to join "Freedom Flotilla II" in a bid to break Israel's five-year blockade on Gaza where 1.5 million Palestinians live.
Israel first imposed a blockade on the enclave in 2006 after militants there snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a deadly cross-border raid. He is still being held.
A ban on civilian goods and foodstuffs was eased last year but many restrictions remain in place.