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New Gaza flotilla 'must be stopped': Israel

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(JERUSALEM) - The planned dispatch of a flotilla of ships attempting to break the blockade on Gaza "must be stopped," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of European representatives on Monday.

Speaking at a lunch with EU heads of mission in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said stopping the flotilla from heading to the coastal territory was a "common interest" for Israel and Europe.

"We are aware that there is an attempted provocation in May, possibly early June of a another so-called flotilla, not a peace flotilla but a provocation, a deliberate provocation to seek to ignite this part of the Middle East," he said.

"I think it's in your and our common interest, and I think it's something that you should... transmit to your governments, that this flotilla must be stopped."

Activists from 25 countries plan to sail around 15 ships to Gaza in May to mark the first anniversary of a smaller flotilla that attempted to sail to the territory last year but was intercepted by Israeli troops.

Israeli commandos raided the boats in a controversial operation that left nine Turkish activists dead and drew international condemnation.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu called on UN chief Ban Ki-moon to stop the ships seeking to break the Gaza blockade.

He said that organisers of the flotilla include "extremist Islamic elements whose aim is to create a provocation and bring about a conflagration."

Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in June 2006 after militants captured conscript Gilad Shalit in deadly cross-border raid from the territory, where he remains in captivity.

Israeli restrictions on imports and exports were tightened a year later when Hamas seized power in the territory of 1.5 million people, ousting loyalists of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

In the face of international condemnation of its raid on the flotilla, Israel eased some of its restrictions on goods entering and leaving Gaza.

But it maintains tight restrictions on items it says could be used by Hamas, including some building materials, and continues to control Gaza's airspace and sea access.

During Netanyahu's meeting Monday, EU ambassador to Israel Andrew Standley expressed the bloc's concern "at the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process."

He urged both sides to move towards renewing talks and expressed hope that a tentative calm between Israel and Hamas, reached after a flare-up of violence around the Gaza Strip, would be maintained.

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