Hamas leader urges Libya-sponsored aid ship to sail to Gaza 14Jul10 July 15, 2010

Haaretz -   14 July 2010

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Wednesday urged the activists aboard a Libyan-sponsored aid ship not to let their cargo ship be diverted from Gaza’s shore and called in a speech for more pro-Palestinian “freedom flotillas.”

“The sea and land convoys must continue. We hope we can depend on Islamic nations to help us lift the blockade,” Haniyeh said, referring to a three-year siege imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel.

The Libyan-chartered ship carrying humanitarian aid for Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip reportedly began sailing toward Egypt’s port of El Arish, Army Radio reported Wednesday, after Israeli navy forces had warned it to steer clear of Gaza.

Israel is keeping close watch on the ship, but remains mindful of international censure since Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists during a raid on another Gaza-bound aid ship in Mediterranean high seas on May 31.

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 a risk of arms shipments to Hamas.

Israel Radio reported Wednesday that Jewish Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff had been mediating between Israel and the charity chaired by Saif al-Islam Gadhafi – son of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi – which sponsored the aid ship, in an effort to prevent the vessel from steering toward Gaza.

Officials in El Arish said they had received instructions to prepare the port to receive the ship, the Amalthea, which was located less than 60 kilometers northwest of the Egyptian port, and sailing at a speed of 7.5 knots (approximately 8.6 kmh).

Israeli naval vessels were shadowing and monitoring the Amalthea, which had been immobile for much of the night due to engine trouble.

“We are not surrounding; we are following,” a military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told Israel Radio, “Anyone who wants to bring materials there which are not dangerous materials – munitions, etcetera – can bring them through El Arish, can bring them through the [Israeli] port of Ashdod.”

“What we want is to set the arrangement for inspections, so we can always check and not allow them to bust their way in,” Meridor said.

An Al-Jazeera correspondent aboard the ship said two of the Israeli ships were on the port side of the vessel, to prevent it from changing direction and sailing to Gaza.

The military spokeswoman said the Amalthea’s Cuban captain had promised Israel Navy officials that he would not continue to Gaza and instead sail to El Arish.

Egypt said late on Tuesday that the Amalthea had asked to dock in its port, while mission organizers insisted the ship would hold course to Gaza.

The charity that chartered the Amalthea said on Tuesday it would sail to Gaza with its declared cargo of 2,000 tons 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.

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