New Gaza flotilla planned despite eased blockade

A coalition of pro-Palestinian groups said today it plans to send a second aid flotilla to Gaza, dismissing Israel's promise to ease its blockade as not bold enough and defying Israeli warnings against any new sea-based activist operation.

Rory Byrne, a spokesman for the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza, said his group and others in the Freedom Flotilla Coalition have six ships and many activists who want to go to Gaza for an operation he hopes will be larger than the one that ended in bloodshed last month.

The coalition includes a Turkish Islamic aid group, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), which Israel has outlawed and accuses of ties with Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The IHH sponsored the lead boat in a six-ship, Gaza-bound aid flotilla that Israeli commandos raided on May 31, killing nine people and sparking an international outcry. Nearly 700 activists had joined that operation.

The IHH said today it has not been directly involved in the planning of the second flotilla, though the coalition said the IHH is free to join in.

Mr Byrne said the six ships should be ready to set sail within the next few weeks, but gave no departure date or itinerary. He would not say where the ships came from, but said the operation was being funded by individual donations.

The Israeli commando raid heightened demands that Israel end the blockade of Gaza, imposed when Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. Hamas calls for Israel's destruction.

Israel announced plans today to ease the land blockade, but is maintaining its naval blockade intended to keep weapons shipments out of the hands of Hamas.

Mr Byrne called that "a sleight of hand". He said the European coalition wants to "keep the pressure up" for Israel to reopen Gaza's borders completely, at sea as well as on land, and to all legal goods.

A high official in the Israeli army said all future foreign flotillas would be stopped. He said Israel would do everything possible to avoid violence, but said "the only way to stop them is to board them".

Asked whether the Israelis would use different tactics the next time, he said each situation would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Byrne shrugged off the warning, saying "there should be no danger from any military operation".

Representatives of the flotilla coalition laid out their plans to European Parliament members in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

The Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an international inquiry into the Israeli raid last month and an immediate end to the blockade.

The resolution also proposes reactivating European Union border monitoring missions in Gaza, and calls on Hamas to "stop all attacks against Israel immediately".

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