JERUSALEM: An announcement by an Arab Israeli lawmaker that he plans to join a pro-Palestinian flotilla seeking to break Israel's blockade on Gaza caused outrage among the country's political class.
Basel Ghattas, an MP with the Joint Arab List, sparked controversy after he announced he would join other parliamentarians and public figures from around the world in the latest attempt to reach Gaza by ship later this month.
The Gaza Strip has been subjected to an Israeli blockade for nine years, which includes a complete ban on ships entering or leaving the coastal enclave's waters. Pro-Palestinian activists have repeatedly tried to reach the Hamas-run territory by sea but have been blocked by the Israeli navy.
In May 2010, Israeli commandos staged a botched raid on a six-ship flotilla which ended in bloodshed that claimed the lives of 10 Turkish nationals and sparked a crisis with Ankara. Hanin Zuabi, a female Arab-Israeli MP who was on board at the time, was roundly denounced by the Israeli political establishment as a traitor -- with Ghattas now facing a similar outcry.
"It is the gravest thing possible that an Israeli MP would join the flotilla whose aim is to help the Hamas terror organisation," said Immigration Minister Zeev Elkin from the ruling rightwing Likud party.
"Israeli law does not allow anyone to serve in parliament who supports a terror organisation," he railed in an interview with army radio. Deputy Foreign Minster Tzipi Hotovely said that joining the attempt to run the blockade was evidence Ghattas was working against Israel.
"The participation of an Arab Israeli MP alongside those who want to fight against Israel is a demonstration of activity in the service of the enemy under the sponsorship of parliamentary immunity," she said in a statement late Sunday.
She said the foreign ministry had been working to prevent the flotilla from reaching Israel's territorial waters. Ghattas on Monday repeated his demand that the "freedom flotilla" be allowed to reach Gaza peacefully, adding that suffering by residents of the strip was being neglected.
"The central issue here is the fact that the Israeli public is trying to ignore the fact that there are two million Palestinians just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Tel Aviv living in disgraceful poverty and hunger," he told army radio.
The flotilla of two main vessels and three smaller boats is expected to try to reach Gaza before the end of the month. A total of about 70 people from more than 20 countries are expected to take part, according to advocacy group Platform for French NGOs for Palestine.
Boats involved in the campaign have left from various Mediterranean ports, the advocacy group said, and were expected to meet up in the coming days to form what is being referred to as Freedom Flotilla III.