Middle East

Israel set for 'flytilla' as Gaza boats blocked

Israeli officers at Ben Gurion, 6 July
Image caption Ben Gurion airport is on high alert for the arrival of the activists

Israel has stepped up security at Tel Aviv airport, ahead of the arrival of 500 pro-Palestinian activists, most of them French nationals, on Friday.

The so-called "flytilla" comes as the Greek authorities have blocked the sailing of an aid flotilla trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

The moves come on the first anniversary of the 2010 Freedom Flotilla.

Nine Turkish activists were killed when Israeli commandos stormed the lead ship, causing an international outcry.

As a result, Israel eased its blockade on the impoverished Palestinian territory, allowing in more food and humanitarian goods.

Israel says the restrictions are necessary to stop weapons smuggling and to put pressure on Hamas, the militant Islamist group that has governed Gaza alone since 2007.

The UN has characterised the measures as the collective punishment of Gaza's population of 1.6 million people.


Image caption The Dignite is part of a 10-ship Freedom Flotilla II

Organisers of the Welcome to Palestine campaign, which the media has dubbed the "flytilla", say it expects more than 500 activists to fly in from the US and Europe to spend a week visiting Palestinian families.

All are "non-violent pacifists", the group said in a statement, dismissing Israeli media speculation about plans to stage protests or sit-ins at the airport.

However, a number of activists were turned back at Paris's Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport as they tried to board a flight to Tel Aviv on the Hungarian airline Malev.

An airport spokesman told AFP news agency their reservations had been cancelled at the request of Israeli authorities who had issued a "list of undesirable persons".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered authorities to "act with determination, while trying to avoid unnecessary friction" with anyone taking part in a provocation, a statement from his office said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the AFP news agency on Thursday that preparations were underway at Ben Gurion: "There is a large police presence in and around the airport to prevent any disturbances," he said.

Boat blocked

Meanwhile, the Greek coast guard intercepted the lone remaining boat from a 10-ship aid convoy that has been trying to sail to Gaza since the end of June.

The French boat - Dignite al-Karama - was detained for "administrative reasons" on a refuelling stop in Crete, organisers said.

Israeli officials have dismissed as "ridiculous" claims by the organisers that Israel has sabotaged two ships - one Irish and one Swedish - and pressured the Greek authorities to block the sailings of the French yacht, as well as US and Canadian vessels.

The Quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the UN, US, EU and Russia - has urged activists to avoid a potential confrontation with Israel, pointing to last year's deadly clashes on the Freedom Flotilla that left nine activists dead.

Israel increased sanctions on Gaza in 2006 after militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. It tightened them further still a year later when Hamas ousted rival Palestinian organisation Fatah from the territory.

Although the Islamist group won Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, it refuses to recognise Israel or to renounce violence and is designated in the West as a terror organisation.

Israel eased the restrictions last year in response to international pressure following the activists' deaths.

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