Security officials and the Foreign Ministry have started preparing feverishly for the expected arrival of another Gaza flotilla in late May. More than 1,000 leftists and pro-Palestinian activists are expected to take part in the flotilla, which sources say will include more than 20 vessels of various sizes.
Drawing lessons from the controversy over the raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship last May, and from the recommendations made after the investigation of the incident by the Turkel commission, Israeli officials are preparing in advance for another such protest at sea.
In recent weeks, Jerusalem has engaged in a large-scale diplomatic effort aimed at pressuring heads of states in countries from which ships are expected to sail, to discourage their citizens from taking part. The hope is that such an effort will head off a large-scale "sequel" to last year's flotilla. Furthermore, in the event that another military raid is called for, this time Israel wants to be able to claim that every possible effort was made to stop the ships peaceably.
Among other officials, senior Israeli diplomats have initiated discussions with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, to persuade him to take steps to prevent the departure of the flotilla.
At the same time, security officials are discussing a possible relaxation of the siege on the Gaza Strip. The main advocate of such a move is Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, coordinator of government activities in the territories. He believes that loosening restrictions on the entry of goods would be an effective response to allegations that Israel is infringing the basic rights of Gaza residents, and would defuse many of the claims made by the flotilla organizers.
Until now, top officials in the security establishment have held a few coordinating meetings in anticipation of the maritime protest in May, together with Foreign Ministry officials.
Concurrently, the navy is completing preparations for a scenario in which its men would have to use force in another raid on a ship. As happened with the Marmara, responsibility for such a raid would devolve upon the naval commando unit; members of this unit have been training for several different eventualities.
The Turkish organization IHH, which was involved in last year's flotilla, is also taking part in planning the new one. The Marmara has apparently been pressed into service for another trip to the Gaza coast. Some activists are talking about a flotilla of up to 50 ships, although other sources indicate that the number will be much smaller. It remains unclear whether organizers will obtain insurance for the ships and various other types of authorization needed to set sail.
The event is planned for May 31, the one-year anniversary of the death of nine Turkish activists during the Israel Defense Forces' raid on the Marmara. The objective of this this flotilla would be both to commemorate those killed as well as to demand that the siege on Gaza be lifted.
Military sources say that there is no magic formula to use to deal with ships that try to enter Israel's waters forcibly. They warn that circumstances this time may be similar to those during the Marmara episode.