- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The State Department is urging Lebanon and organizers of an upcoming aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip to deliver the supplies over land to avoid confrontation with Israel’s military.

“As we continue to make clear to involved parties, mechanisms exist for the transfer of humanitarian assistance to Gaza by member states and groups that want to do so,” the State Department said in statement released Wednesday in response to a question.

Two Lebanese groups — Journalists Without Borders and the Free Palestine Movement — are organizing two ship flotillas with aid packages. Known as “Freedom Flotilla 2,” the effort is largely organized by Syrian businessman Yasser Qashlaq, who said this month that as many as 50 ships could take part in the next attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Israeli forces intercepted the last aid flotilla on May 31, and a confrontation on one of the ships between activists and commandos resulted in the deaths of nine activists. That flotilla was organized in part by IHH, a Turkish charity that has been banned in Israel for its support of Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza.

Last week, Israel announced it would loosen some of the restrictions on goods allowed into Gaza, a gesture that dampened the prospect for a U.N. Security Council-mandated probe of the incident.

Despite the loosening of restrictions, Israel and the United States are still committed to maintaining the blockade of Gaza.

“Direct delivery by sea is neither appropriate, nor responsible, and certainly not effective, under the circumstances,” the State Department statement said. “We, along with our partners in the [Mideast] Quartet, urge all those wishing to deliver goods to do so through established channels so that their cargo can be inspected and transferred via land crossings into Gaza.”

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israeli think tank, said in a background paper issued Wednesday that it suspects Mr. Qashlaq’s flotilla was being supported by Syrian and Hezbollah financing.

The think tank, which has close ties to Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad, quoted Mr. Qashlaq in a June 19 interview with the Hezbollah satellite channel, al-Manar, as saying, “A day will come when the ships will carry the remainder of the European garbage which came to my homeland [i.e., Israel] and return them to their homelands.”

Lebanese ministers on Wednesday warned Israel that their government will hold Israel responsible for what happens to flotilla ships attempting to break the blockade.

In response, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement aimed at the Lebanese government: “You are responsible for vessels leaving your ports with the clear intention of trying to block the naval blockade of Gaza.”