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Activists sailing for Gaza anticipate confrontation with Israeli Navy

More than 750 international activists were speeding along the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to the Gaza Strip over the weekend, hoping to deliver aid to the beleaguered Palestinian population there. They have piled into eight cargo ships carrying about 10,000 tons of food, water and construction materials, and have proclaimed themselves the “International Freedom Flotilla.”

Israel, most likely, will stop them.

The aid effort, which has been organized by groups like the European Campaign Against the Siege of Gaza, may be an inherently aggressive act, designed to provoke Israel into embarrassing itself on the world stage. In addition to food, the activists are toting wheelchairs and playground sets, and have come prepared for a protracted stand-off with the Israeli Navy.

“Our point is to break the blockade, and to let the Palestinians have the same quality of life that you and I do,” Greta Berlin, co-founder of the Free Gaza movement, told Need to Know in a telephone interview from Cyprus, where she is organizing the flotilla. “We probably have enough supplies on board our boats for a couple of weeks.”

The Israeli Navy, meanwhile, has dispatched gun ships to Gaza’s coastal waters, and has promised to arrest the pro-Palestinian activists. Israeli officials say they will then transport the cargo to Gaza, but Berlin said she doubted the material would make it to residents of the territory.

Israel has maintained a crippling blockade of Gaza since 2006, when Hamas took control of the territory in local elections. Both Israel and the United States have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization, and Israel has attempted to prevent the group from staging attacks. But the cost of Israeli’s policy has been a decline in living conditions in Gaza, as a recent report by the United Nations mission there detailed.

The flotilla represents a delicate public relations problem for Israel. For one, the ships will be carrying as many as 20 members of parliament from countries like Ireland and Turkey. If Israel arrests them, or perhaps even sparks a protracted and potentially bloody stand-off, the move could earn Israeli leaders worldwide condemnation, just as indirect peace talks get under way.

On the other hand, if Israel allows the ships to pass, it would effectively signal a weakening of the blockade and, by extension, of Israel’s resolve to defeat the hardline government there. Past center-left governments under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak have allowed activists to deliver aid to Gaza.

But the current government, a center-right coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised to turn the aid workers back — including by force, if necessary.

“We really have all determination and political will to prevent this provocation against us,” the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said on Friday. “I think that we’re ready at any cost.”