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Gaza Aid Flotilla Heads Toward Confrontation

May 30 (Bloomberg) -- Five ships carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists and 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid supplies set off for the Gaza Strip as Israel’s Navy prepared to intercept them.

The flotilla, which has been reduced from eight ships because of mechanical problems, left a meeting point off the coast of Cyprus early today and headed south, said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, which is organizing the operation. She said they would probably reach international waters off the coast of Gaza by tomorrow.

“We will probably sail overnight and should arrive at our target in the morning,” Berlin said, speaking by phone from Cyprus.

Three Israeli navy missile boats left the Haifa naval base at about 9 p.m. local time, planning to intercept the flotilla. Reporters on board were told to turn off their mobile phones.

Israel has said it won’t let the ships reach Gaza, calling the mission a propaganda trick aimed at making it look bad. Navy ships are preparing to intercept the flotilla and bring it to Israel’s Ashdod port, north of Gaza, said Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. The Israeli government said it would assist in offloading the cargo and sending it by truck to Gaza after a security inspection. The passengers will be deported, Palmor said.

Live Broadcast Planned

The ships are carrying cement and other construction materials for rebuilding homes destroyed by war in Gaza, as well as medical equipment and school supplies, Berlin said. Some of the ships are carrying television crews that plan to broadcast live any confrontation between Israeli forces and the activists.

Israel has restricted entry of people and goods into Gaza since the territory was taken over by the militant Hamas movement in 2007, allowing in only a limited range of supplies including food, clothing and medicine. Israeli Navy ships have intercepted three previous efforts by the Free Gaza Movement, formed in 2008 to deliver aid, to reach the territory by sea.

Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union. Israel fought a three-week war in Gaza starting in December 2008 that it said was meant to stop Hamas and other militant groups from firing rockets into its territory. It has been negotiating a prisoner swap with Hamas to exchange a captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for about 1,000 jailed Palestinians.

Israeli bombing and ground operations during the war destroyed thousands of houses across Gaza and Israel’s restrictions on construction materials have prevented Palestinians from being able to rebuild. The army said such materials are used by Hamas for building weapons and bunkers.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at jferziger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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