ATHENS/JERUSALEM: Israel on Sunday vowed to prevent a Libyan aid ship from running the Gaza blockade after it appeared to be heading for the besieged enclave, despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts to divert it to Egypt.
"Israel will not let the boat reach Gaza," minister without portfolio Yossi Peled told Israel’s public radio, a day after the 92-meter ship set sail from the Greek port of Lavrio, south of Athens.
There was confusion over the ship’s destination on Sunday, with organizers saying it was staying the course for Gaza, despite diplomatic reassurances from Greece that it was headed for the Egyptian port of Al-Arish.
Commissioned by a Libyan charity run by the Libyan leader’s son, Seif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi, the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship Amalthea left Greece around 8 pm local time (1700 GMT) on Saturday. It is carrying 2,000 tons of food and medical supplies destined for Gaza, mostly donated by Greek companies and charities, organizers said.
In addition to 15 volunteers — all from Libya except for a Nigerian, a Moroccan, and an Algerian — the ship has a crew of 12 from Cuba, Haiti, India, and Syria.
Youssef Sawani, executive director of Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which has mounted the aid operation, insisted the aim remained to unload the supplies in Gaza.
His comments were supported by Arab Israeli parliamentarian Ahmed Tibi. "The ship is heading into Gaza as originally planned," said the MP who is in touch with the charity.
However, Israel’s top diplomat Avigdor Lieberman has been talking with his counterparts in Greece and Moldova in a bid to encourage the ship to call off its mission.
"The foreign ministry believes that due to these talks, the ship will not reach Gaza," said a statement from his office.
Early Saturday, Greek foreign ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras said, "We confirmed the destination [as Al-Arish] in talks with the Libyan ambassador and the ship’s agent."
"The ambassador speaks for the state of Libya, I speak for the NGO," Sawani said. He said the ship would not seek confrontation with the Israelis.
If Israel does not allow the ship into Gaza, the group will seek "any other appropriate destination — Al-Arish or other — to deliver the goods to the people in need," Sawani said.
Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the attempt to reach Gaza, which has been subjected to an Israeli naval blockade for the past four years, was an "unnecessary provocation."
"The goods can be transferred to the Gaza Strip through Ashdod port after being checked," a statement from his office said late on Saturday.
"However, we will not allow the entry of arms, weapons or anything which will support fighting into Gaza. We recommend that the organizers either let the ship be escorted by navy vessels to Ashdod port (in southern Israel) or that it sails directly to the port of Al-Arish."
The Amalthea’s trip comes over a month after Israel boarded Gaza-bound ships, killing eight Turks and a Turkish-American on one of them. The flotilla was trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israel has eased the blockade since then.
Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, sent a letter to UN chief Ban Ki-moon asking the international community "to exert its influence on the government of Libya" to prevent the ship from going to Gaza, Israeli media reported.
Jordanian activists and trade unionists, meanwhile, said they plan to head to Gaza overland on Tuesday through the Egyptian border, carrying aid relief and medical supplies.
Last month, Egypt banned a group of Jordanian trade unionists from entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing, saying they had failed to give prior notice of their arrival.
"More than 150 people and 30 vehicles with aid, medicines and clothes will leave Amman for Gaza on Tuesday morning," Wael Saqqa, head of the Jordan Engineers Association, said on Sunday.
The Amalthea’s trip is expected to last about 80 hours, according to the organizers, which means it will arrive at Al-Arish early Wednesday.