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ISRAEL: Libyan aid ship sets hopeful course for Gaza

July 11, 2010 |  7:44 am

Six weeks after the deadly takeover of the Mavi Marmara, Israel's naval blockade of Gaza faces its next challenge as another aid ship has set off with its sights on reaching the Palestinian port.

The Amalthea, sailing under a Moldovan flag, left Greece on Saturday carrying 2,000 tons of food, medicine and other supplies in a mission organized by the Gaddafi International Development Foundation, a charity headed by Seif Islam, son of Libyan ruler Moammar Kadafi.

Youssef Sawani, executive director of the organization that earned U.N. accreditation as an NGO two years ago, said Sunday they sought no provocation. Before leaving port the day before, he told Al Jazeera they were just fulfilling their international responsibility under the "legal and humanitarian approach adopted everywhere." If everyone refrains from action because Israel says it won't allow it, nothing will change and "the people of Gaza will starve," Sawani said. 

Israel says indeed it will not allow 'it', meaning direct access to the Gaza port, and that no one is starving in Gaza. Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the act a "needless provocation" and said cargo could be transfered to Gaza following inspection at the Israeli port of Ashdod.

 At the weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in all his recent meetings abroad he found broad support for Israel's decision to lift the civilian blockade on Gaza while "strictly maintaining the security blockade," as well as the understanding that Israel was doing this to keep weapons out and its citizens safe.

Traffic on diplomatic channels has been busy in recent days as Israel has made efforts to prevent the ship from sailing. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman discussed the matter with his Greek, Egyptian and Molodovan counterparts. Israeli ambassador to the U.N., Gabriela Shalev, sent a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seeking help in prevent the ship from setting off while asserting Israel's right to keep ships from violating the naval blockade.

Sunday saw conflicting reports as to the ship's final destination. Reports that the ship had agreed to head for the Egyptian port of El Arish, including from official Greek sources, were denied later as the captain said Gaza as a destination remained unchanged. Israel suggested the ship continue to Egypt or dock at Ashdod for inspection; Gaza is not an option.

A repeat of the Marmara isn't likely. The Amalthea is a smaller cargo ship, with around 30 people on board; of these, only about a dozen are activists. One of them, Abdel Raof Jaziri, told Al Jazeera -- which has a reporter on board -- that they had no weapons, guns or even small knives. "We come for peace and to help," he said (in the video above). Among other aid, the ship is carrying medicine based on a list provided by Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Israeli legislator and physician. Tibi told Israeli radio over the weekend that he supports such flotillas as an act of passive resistance, far better than any alternative. Besides, he says, the political pressure works. 

And it does. Israel is still smarting all over from the previous maritime misadventure.

Under heavy international pressure, it announced a new policy on goods into Gaza, liberalizing entry of civilian goods while continuing to bar weapons and war materiel as well as dual-use goods and technology including fertilizer and fireworks. The government appointed a committee to examine the flotilla incident (officially "the maritime incident of 31.5.10") headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge and including two international observers and has since expanded its authority, but some pressure for an international investigation remains.

Israel says it will not allow direct access to Gaza's port. Besides the obvious issue of smuggling weapons, Israel warns that allowing Iran a port in the Mediterranean is a matter of strategic danger. Egypt doesn't want Iran this close either, say Israeli sources. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday. The Libyan-chartered ship sailed from the Greek port of Lavrio Saturday.

Reports midday Sunday spoke of a 70-hour voyage. Taking the slow boat to Gaza could give leaders time to work it out Tuesday.

Before the Amalthea docks in Ashdod or El Arish, another shipping headache is landing in Israeli officials' lap. The committee appointed by the Israeli Defense Force to investigate the army's handling of the flotilla takeover, headed by retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, will submit its report to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi on Monday, but advance drafts have already been reported in the press. The army will make the report available to the Turkel committee that will not be questioning soldiers.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Video: The Amalthea, sailing from Greece under a Moldovan flag and with aid from Libya, from the Al Jazeera report. Credit: Al Jazeera, on Youtube.

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