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Flotilla nears Gaza defying new Israeli threat

Israel threatens to intercept Freedom Flotilla III before it reaches Gaza
Pro-Palestinian activists set sail on 26 June, 2015 from the port of Elounda, northeastern Crete island, (AFP)

Activists sailing towards Gaza to challenge Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory are nearing their destination despite an Israeli threat to intercept their journey, an Israeli television journalist with them reported late Sunday.

"We have been at sea for three days and we are at a distance of no more than 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the Gaza Strip," Channel Two's Ohad Hemo said in a broadcast from the deck of the Swedish-flagged Marianne of Gothenburg.

The vessel is part of the so-called Freedom Flotilla III -- a convoy of four ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists including Arab Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas, Tunisia's former president Moncef Marzouki and at least one European lawmaker.

"It's not clear when we'll arrive. Will we wait for the other three boats that are behind us or try to break through to the Gaza Strip first?" Hemo reported.

The Israeli government on Sunday published a letter which will be handed to flotilla participants once they are in Israeli hands.

"If and when they reach Israel they will get a nice letter," foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told AFP.

"Welcome to Israel!" said a Hebrew-language text of the message seen by AFP.

"It looks as if you lost your way," it continues.

"Perhaps you intended to sail to a place not far from here; Syria where (President Bashar) Assad's regime is every day massacring his people, supported by Iran's murderous regime."

The Israeli comments, however, were dismissed as hypocritical by the Palestinians.

"Israel is trying to cover up its crimes against the Palestinians by the using the situation in Syria as a distraction," Dr Mazen Kahel, one of the main organizers of the Freedom Flotilla III, told MEE via phone from France.

"Does the fact that there is a crisis in Syria mean that we should forget about what is going on in Gaza? And why does Israel mention massacres committed elsewhere and not the ones carried out by its own army? We have a just cause and international solidarity with the Palestinians is growing by the day," he added.  

Prior to the Israeli threat of intercepting the flotilla, Ghattas warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against "causing an international crisis," calling on the premier to allow for the safe passage of the passengers.

Hemo said that the 50 passengers on the Marianne get twice daily briefings from the organisers on non-violent resistance to the Israeli commandos they expect to board the boat sooner or later.

"We have seen on the sonar an unidentified vessel following us at a distance of about 20 (nautical) miles and the assumption is that it is an (Israeli) naval ship," he said.

"It is clear to everyone that commandos will board somewhere before entry to Gaza," he added.

In a similar bid to break the blockade in 2010, a pre-dawn raid by Israeli commandos on the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara killed 10 Turkish activists

Several attempts since have been thwarted, but without bloodshed.

"While the Flotilla bears much-needed aid, our main cargo is, as always, human solidarity and non-violent direct action for the respect of human rights," said a statement by the Freedom Flotilla III on Sunday.

Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2006 and in in July-August 2014, it launched a 50-day military offensive against the coastal territory - the third in six years - killing about 2,200 mainly civilian Palestinians, and leaving 100,000 Gazans homeless.