AL-ARISH: A Libyan ship, initially bent on breaking Israel’s Gaza blockade, docked in Egypt on Wednesday after agreeing to deliver its cargo of aid through Egyptian territory.
The news ended fears of a new confrontation between activists and the Israeli navy, which had threatened to use force if the ship did not either turn back or head for Egypt.
The Libyan charity which chartered the vessel, the Qaddafi Foundation, said it had obtained guarantees from Cairo and from a "European mediator" that Israel would allow the ship’s cargo of 2,000 tons of food and medicine into Gaza.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Cairo had received a request for the Moldovan-flagged ship, the Amalthea, to get its cargo of aid to Gaza through Egyptian territory.
“As soon as the ship arrives in Al-Arish, Egyptian authorities will unload its cargo and hand the aid to the Egyptian Red Crescent, which will deliver it to the Palestinian side,” he said.
The ship reached the waiting area of Al-Arish on Wednesday evening, but has yet to dock because the captain is seeking clearance from the shipment’s organizers, said the director of the Egyptian port, Gamal Abdel Maqsoud.
Port officials said they expected the Amalthea to be unloaded on Thursday.
Israeli missile ships had been shadowing the Amalthea since Wednesday morning to ensure that it would not reach Gaza. An Al-Jazeera reporter on board the aid boat said Israeli ships were arrayed in a "wall" intended to prevent the Amalthea from continuing toward the Palestinian territory.
Despite the Israeli insistence that it would not allow the ship through the blockade, Hamas officials in Gaza had been urging the Amalthea to press on. Speaking at a ceremony naming a street after those killed in the May 31 confrontation, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the territory’s Hamas government, called the Libyan ship "our moving hope in the Mediterranean Sea."
"Beware not to fall into the trap and stop in a port other than Gaza," he said as the street was named "The Martyrs of the Freedom Flotilla."
A senior Israeli military official had told the Maariv daily that the navy was not expecting any problems from those on board the Libyan-chartered vessel, but they were prepared to respond if it became necessary.
"We do not expect any resistance," he said. "But if our soldiers do encounter problems, they will not hesitate to use force."
Earlier on Wednesday, Tony Blair, the representative of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, urged "all sides to act with restraint."
"The most important thing is to avoid confrontation, which is why the established channels for delivering aid to Gaza should be used in accordance with the new policy we have been working on," the former British premier said.
After news of the docking, Richard Miron, spokesman for UN Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry, said "we are pleased that the ship has got to Al-Arish so that the cargo can be transferred by established channels.
"We have sought to avoid any confrontation and we continue to call on those involved to exercise calm and restraint."
On May 31, Israeli commandos stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists and sparking an international outcry.
In the face of international criticism, Israel agreed to ease its four-year-old land blockade of Gaza. Israel says it now blocks only weapons and other goods which could be of military use to Hamas which controls the Palestinian territory.
It insists that its naval blockade will remain in place, however, to prevent Palestinian armed groups from bringing in weapons by sea.
Earlier this week, the Israeli military published the results of an internal inquiry into the May raid, which found that while mistakes had been made, the troops’ use of live fire was "justified."
And Israel again defended its actions during a hearing of the UN Human Rights Committee on Wednesday.
"No ship can breach this blockade, be they civil or military ships. Whoever violates the blockade is heading for retaliation," Israeli envoy Sari Rubenstein told the committee.
The 92-meter (302-foot) Amalthea had left Greece on Saturday carrying a crew of 12, the shipping agent said. There were also nine passengers: six Libyans, a Nigerian, a Moroccan and an Algerian. The Qaddafi foundation, headed by the son of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, said there were 2,000 tons of food and medical supplies on board.
Israel invited the activists to sail to the Israeli port of Ashdod and unload the supplies there, after which Israel would screen the goods and send them into Gaza overland. The group refused.
Libya has also received the green light to "spend $50 million towards housing construction in the Gaza Strip by winter," the charity’s executive director, Yussef Sawan, said, adding that the foundation would also provide 500 prefabricated houses.
George Saba, who manages a branch of the Cairo Amman Bank in the territory, said Wednesday that because of cash shortages the bank could not pay this month’s salary to government officials. Palestinian officials in the West Bank were trying to arrange a transfer of Israeli cash into Gaza to alleviate the shortage.