ASHDOD, Israel | Israel on Thursday unveiled a massive makeshift detention center in the country’s main southern port and announced the end of days of intense naval maneuvers, vowing to stop a flotilla of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists trying to break a three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip this weekend.
Military authorities said masked naval commandos would greet the eight ships deep out at sea, escort the vessels to port and give each of the activists a stark choice: leave the country or go to jail.
But the tough response threatened to backfire by breathing new life into the activists’ mission and drawing new attention to the oft-criticized blockade of Gaza.
“We know that we are sailing for a good cause,” said Dror Feiler, 68, an Israeli-born Swedish activist who was on board a cargo ship headed from Greece to Gaza. “If the Israelis want us to pay a price, we will pay a price, but we will come again and again.”
About 750 activists, including a Nobel peace laureate and former U.S. congresswoman, have set sail for the Gaza coast in recent days, carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies. They are expected to reach the Israeli coast on Saturday.
The volunteers say they are bringing desperately needed materials to the area, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since Hamas militants violently took control in June 2007.
Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, says the blockade is needed to prevent the Islamic militants from developing weapons. It has condemned the flotilla as a publicity stunt, insisting there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and offering to deliver the aid through official channels.
“If they were really interested in the well-being of the people of Gaza, they would have accepted the offers of Egypt or Israel to transfer humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “Instead, they have chosen a cheap political stunt.”
In recent days, Israel’s navy chief, Vice Adm. Eliezer Marum, has overseen a series of drills simulating the boarding of ships and the transfer of passengers to shore, the military said. It said it would make every effort to avoid using force against the flotilla but that naval commandos and attack dogs were prepared for a military confrontation if necessary.
“We have no intention of harming any one of these people, but with that said, we have a very clear mission to carry out. We will prevent them from entering the Gaza Strip,” Adm. Marum said. The military has said that those arrested would be deported.
In Ashdod, authorities showed off three large white tents equipped with computers and medical supplies. Officials said the activists would be identified, then placed on buses going straight to Israel’s international airport for deportation. Those who refuse to go voluntarily will be taken to a nearby prison.
“We have to remember: These people are entering Israel illegally,” said Maya Kadosh, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
Officials said the cargo would undergo a security check and then be transferred to U.N. agencies for distribution in Gaza.