Bloomberg News

Israel Hopes Diplomatic Pressure Heads Off Gaza Aid Flotilla

June 25, 2011

(Updates with comment from U.S. State Department from third paragraph.)

June 25 (Bloomberg) -- Israel made a final diplomatic push to halt a flotilla planning to break its embargo of the Gaza Strip and prevent confrontation similar to that of a year ago when nine Turkish activists were killed.

Israel submitted a letter to United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon this week calling the flotilla a provocation “designed only to serve an extremist political agenda.” Israel’s UN Ambassador, Ron Prosor, told Israel Radio on June 23 the flotilla’s scope appears to be diminishing and he hopes that appeals to international leaders may prevent it from sailing.

The U.S. State Department yesterday warned American citizens that taking part in the flotilla may “violate U.S. civil and criminal statues” and lead to fines or incarceration.

Israel imposed the embargo after the Islamic Hamas movement, designated as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, ending a coalition government with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction a year after winning a parliamentary vote. Palestinians say the restrictions are illegal under international law and impoverish the 1.5 million residents of Gaza, where unemployment is almost 40 percent.

‘No Responsibility’

The blockade “not only denies the whole of Gaza’s civilian population the possibility of a normal life, but also collectively punishes them for acts for which they bear no responsibility,” Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian Territories, said on June 23.

Freedom Flotilla II, the group behind the plan, says it aims to draw attention to the effects of the embargo and increase pressure on Israel to end it.

About 10 ships with representatives from 20 countries are scheduled to set sail for Gaza this weekend in a renewed attempt to break Israel’s embargo, according to the group’s website. They are expected to reach Gaza “in the first days of July” after departing from Athens and other European Mediterranean ports, Dror Feiler, an Israeli-Swedish flotilla organizer, said in a phone interview.

The international community should work “to guarantee the arrival of the freedom flotilla to the Gaza and to defy the Israeli occupation siege,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said in a statement yesterday.

U.S. Government Warning

The State Department warned U.S. citizens against “conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas,” according to an e-mailed statement from spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. American novelist Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” told CNN this week she will join the flotilla for the sake of “the Palestinian children.”

The first Gaza flotilla ended in violence on May 31, 2010, when Israeli naval commandos rappelled from helicopters and opened fire after the ship Mavi Marmara, part of a six-boat flotilla, refused to stop. Israel says people onboard shot first and attacked with iron bars, a charge they deny.

The day after the raid, the shekel weakened to an almost 10-month low, while the benchmark TA-25 stock index posted a two-day drop of 2.6 percent amid concern that criticism over the raid would spur investors to sell. The stock index has since rebounded 13 percent.

Apology and Compensation

The raid spurred Turkey to withdraw its ambassador to Israel and freeze diplomatic contacts until it receives an apology and compensation. The international pressure it sparked prompted Israel to relax import restrictions through its border crossings, while maintaining the naval embargo to prevent arms smuggling.

No Turkish ships, including the Mavi Mamara, will be taking part in this flotilla, and the number of same Turks participating will be “small,” according to spokesman for the Islamic aid organization Humanitarian Relief Foundation.

The reduced Turkish presence comes amid reports that officials from Jerusalem and Ankara are holding talks to try and repair their relationship. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulating him on the June 12 elections.

Turkey was Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East before the raid and remains its biggest trading partner.

Egyptian Blockade

Turkey’s exports to Israel from January to April increased to $695 million from $600 million in the same period last year and its imports from Israel rose to $662 million from $420 million.

Egypt, under former President Hosni Mubarak, cooperated with Israel by imposing its own blockade on Gaza, a policy that was criticized by the protesters who drove Mubarak out of power in February. Egypt on May 28 permanently opened its border crossing to Gaza residents, though it still restricts the passage of goods.

Israel has said it will not allow the flotilla to reach Gaza and that any foreign aid for its residents can be transferred through its border crossings after being checked.

Israeli officials decline to comment on a specific strategy or tactics that the military might use to halt the flotilla. The navy has conducted riot-control exercises to prepare for it and plans to bring photographers on board with them to document any violent resistance, Haaretz reported, without saying where it got the information.

Intelligence-Gathering

The military will also more closely monitor Internet sites associated with the flotilla organizers as part of its intelligence-gathering, the Israeli daily said.

“A flotilla driven by hate has recently been organizing an attempt to reach Gaza’s shore with a clear intent to come to a confrontation with IDF troops,” Israel Navy Chief Vice-Admiral Eliezer Marom said on June 19. “This is a flagrant attempt to delegitimize Israel and create a PR stunt.”

Less than a month after the May 31 confrontation, Israel loosened its land blockade with Gaza with the aim of allowing more food in and keeping weapons and other items with a possible military use out.

Israel launched a three-week military operation at the end of 2008 against the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping cross-border rocket attacks. More than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the fighting.

Unemployment in Gaza stands at 37.4 percent, the World Bank said in April. Per capita gross domestic product in the Palestinian territory is about $775, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. By comparison, Israel’s GDP per capita is about $30,000, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics.

--With assistance from Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza, Benjamin Harvey in Ankara and Maria Petrakis in Athens. Editors: Karl Maier, Ben Holland, Alastair Reed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem at cbendavid@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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