JERUSALEM — International activists on a Gaza-bound flotilla rejected on Tuesday Israeli claims they were bent on deadly violence, as Israel vowed to prevent the 10-vessel convoy from reaching the enclave.
As the ships gathered in Greece ahead of their voyage to Gaza later this week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted Israel would be able to handle any violence from "hard core activists" after the military said some of the passengers were bent on killing soldiers.
"The moderate elements who were planning to join the flotilla ... know that for everyone who wants to help people in Gaza, that there is a legal way to do it," Lieberman told public radio in a telephone interview from Zagreb.
"It is clear that those who are still participating in the flotilla are the hard core terror activists," he said.
"No one doubts the intention of those people ... But I am sure we will cope with them."
Seven of the 10 ships are currently docked in Greece, with organisers saying the entire flotilla would rendezvous off Crete towards the end of this week before the latest attempt to break the five-year blockade on Gaza.
A similar attempt by a six-ship convoy to reach the Palestinian territory in May 2010 ended in bloodshed when Israeli troops stormed the lead vessel, killing nine Turkish activists and sparking a diplomatic crisis with Ankara.
On Monday, Israel's security cabinet ordered the navy to stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza, but urged it to do so with "minimal confrontation" with the passengers.
Nearly 300 pro-Palestinian activists from 22 countries including Canada, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain are set to join the flotilla, among them a good number of middle-aged as well as elderly Americans and Europeans.
They will be joined by 35 journalists from all over the globe, organisers said.
Security officials initially told the cabinet that Israel had no information that anyone linked to a terror group was planning to take part in the flotilla, the Haaretz newspaper reported on Monday.
But by nightfall, the assessment had changed dramatically, with a military spokeswoman telling reporters they had information about "radical elements" who were planning to murder Israeli soldiers.
"There are radical elements on board the American boat who have said they want to kill Israeli soldiers," said Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz.
"We also know that one of the boats is carrying dangerous incendiary chemicals that these human rights militants want to use against Israeli soldiers," she said.
But the organisers rubbished the claims as fantasy.
"That is utterly ridiculous. Absolutely not. There is nothing chemical on board -- unless you count hair spray!" said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza organisation, who is also a passenger on the US-flagged Audacity of Hope.
Dror Feiler, an Israeli-Swedish spokesman for the flotilla, also denied the allegations, telling Israel's army radio it was a barefaced attempt to justify an eventual use of violence.
"All the passengers signed a pledge of non-violence," he said, rejecting Israeli claims as "an attempt to rationalise in advance the use of violence by the army."
"We have no intention of confronting anyone," said Feiler, who will be travelling on board the MV Juliano, a boat of Swedish, Norwegian and Greek activists.
He also dismissed reports suggesting the activists were transporting dangerous chemicals, such as sulphur which they were allegedly planning to use against the troops.
"There will be petrol on board the ship. Is this petrol meant to burn the soldiers?" he asked.
But Israel's ultra-nationalist foreign minister said it was clear that the passengers were "hard core activists, terror activists" who were not interested in humanitarian aid.
"They want to purposely create a provocation, they are looking for a confrontation, they are looking for blood, they are looking for many images on the TV screens," he said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders have urged the flotilla not to set sail. On Tuesday, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry said he was "concerned" about plans for a new flotilla, describing it as "bad idea."
Israel first imposed a blockade on the enclave in 2006 after militants there snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a deadly cross-border raid. He is still being held.
A ban on civilian goods and foodstuffs was eased last year but many restrictions remain in place.
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