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Israeli premier: Gaza flotillas aimed at breaking military embargo, bringing weapons

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged Wednesday that the real motivation behind plans to send blockade-busting ships toward Gaza is to allow free flow of weapons into the Palestinian territory.

Netanyahu spoke as preparations were under way to send several ships carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists toward Gaza, setting up potential confrontations at sea.

On May 31, Israeli naval commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists in clashes aboard a Turkish ship headed for Gaza, setting off a world outcry and forcing Israel to ease its three-year-old blockade.

Israel already has warned archenemy Iran to drop its plan to send a blockade-busting ship to Gaza. The Iranian ship is one of several that activists say will head for Gaza in the next few months. One is said to be heading for Gaza from Lebanon within days.

On Wednesday, Lebanon warned that it would hold Israel responsible for any further attacks on blockade-busting ships.

Netanyahu said his government is drawing up a list of weapons and items with military uses that will not be allowed into Gaza "so that we can permit all the rest."

He said the new list will be made public "in the coming days."

In Washington, where Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. would be a "part of that conversation" of drawing up the list.

Barak assured Clinton that building materials would be let in for "a significant increase in the projects that will go forward in Gaza," Crowley said.

Since the violent 2007 takeover of Gaza by Hamas — an Islamic militant group responsible for firing thousands of rockets at Israeli border communities — Israel has let in only limited humanitarian supplies, including basic foods and medicine.

Construction materials, which Israel maintains Hamas could use to make weapons and build bunkers, were barred, and the vast majority of Gaza's 1.5 million people could not travel. The blockade strangled the already poor territory's economy but failed to undermine Hamas, one of the blockade's main goals.

Under Israel's new policy, approved Sunday, "Anyone who wants to bring products can do so — food, toys, medicines, anything," Netanyahu said Wednesday at his Jerusalem office, where he was meeting Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.

Israel insists that all cargo from the flotillas must be inspected at one of its ports to remove weapons, and then the aid supplies would be transferred over land to Gaza. Flotilla organizers have rejected this procedure, prompting Israel to take control of the boats at sea and bring them to Ashdod port.

The May 31 flotilla was made up of six ships, and violence erupted on only one of them. Israel says its commandos were attacked with iron bars, clubs and knives and opened fire in self-defense.

Flotilla organizers say the Israeli gunfire was unprovoked.

Netanyahu said the removal of the ban on civilian products shows that the object of the new flotillas "is to stage a provocation to break the military quarantine, not the civilian quarantine, that is, the quarantine against missiles, rockets and other weapons."

Netanyahu did not repeat earlier Israeli vows to stop all ships heading for Gaza. Israel's military, stung by the international outrage over its bloody attack on the Turkish flotilla, has been drilling new procedures for stopping ships at sea.

Two ships carrying aid are planning to make the trip to Gaza from Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have so far granted one of them permission to sail first to Cyprus and not directly to Gaza because Lebanon and Israel are technically at war.

A Lebanese official said Lebanon sent a letter to the U.N. holding Israel responsible for any attack on the ships, noting Lebanon cannot stop ships from leaving its ports if they comply with its law.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak publicly due to the sensitivity of the issue.

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Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut and Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.