A Libyan-chartered ship carrying aid for Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip is loitering in international waters this morning after the Israeli navy warned it to steer clear, a military spokeswoman says.
Egypt said late yesterday that the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea had asked to dock in its nearby El Arish port, while mission organisers insisted the ship would hold course to Gaza. “It is 55 miles (88 km) from Egypt and 80 miles (128 km) from Gaza in international waters. We are observing,” the Israeli spokewoman said. “From what I understand, it is stationary.” Israel has vowed to turn away or seize the ship — renamed “Hope” by activists — rather than let it reach Gaza, whose Islamist Hamas rulers the Jewish state wants to keep isolated. But the Israelis are mindful of international censure that crested after their commandos killed nine Turks in May while boarding another Gaza-bound aid ship in international waters.
Asked on Israel Radio if the ship’s location might deter the navy from mounting an interception, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said: “I don’t want to get into matters linked to operational details … but certainly that’s a consideration.” The station also aired what it said was a recording of the ship’s Cuban captain, Antonio, informing navy negotiators by radio that his engineers were trying to fix mechanical problems. “I cannot tell you how much time will it take. As soon as we are ready, I’ll tell you, over,” he is heard saying in English. A charity chaired by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi — son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi — which chartered the Amalthea said on Tuesday it would sail to Gaza with its declared cargo of 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine. Charity director Youssef Sawani rejected accounts of the ship’s El Arish destination as a ruse.
The confusion over where and when the Amalthea would dock prompted an Israeli official to suggest there was disagreement between the hired crew of 12 and some 10 pro-Palestinian activists aboard determined to defy the Gaza blockade.
Israel Radio aired what sounded like the navy warning the captain that he would be held responsible for any showdown at sea and legal ramifications. Other aid ships have been impounded in Israel, with some of their cargo eventually trucked to Gaza. “You are in charge of the people on the ship, and any attempt to enter the area will be your fault only,” a voice that the radio identified as a navy negotiator is heard saying.
The Amalthea set sail from Greece on Saturday on a voyage that would ordinarily see it reach Gaza by Wednesday. Rerouting to El Arish would still require the ship to skirt Gaza. Al-Jazeera satellite channel, which has a correspondent aboard the ship, said four Israeli warships were in pursuit. Outcry at the bloodshed aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara prompted Israel to ease overland trade with Gaza, but it kept the sea blockade citing risk of arms shipments to Hamas.
“Both we and the Egyptians have a very great interest in ensuring that the Gaza Strip and Hamas do not stockpile weaponry and gain strength,” Ayalon said. Unlike Libya, Egypt has full diplomatic relations with Israel.
On June 5, the navy commandeered the Irish-owned aid ship Rachel Corrie after it refused orders to turn back or dock in Israel for its cargo to be vetted for overland transfer to Gaza. An Israeli inquiry by a military panel under a retired general into the navy’s killing of the Turkish activists concluded on Monday there had been faults in planning the high seas interception but that lethal force was warranted.