Sunday, July 11, 2010

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 302-foot freighter Amalthea set sail from the Greek port of Lavrio.

Allowing vessels to reach the Hamas-run Gaza Strip without being checked would have “very serious consequences” for Israel’s security, he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also insisted in an interview with Fox News on Sunday that Israel was determined to enforce the four-year-old Gaza blockade to keep weapons out of the territory.

“We are enforcing a security blockade in order to prevent weapons and war material from getting into Gaza,” Mr. Netanyahu said

“My policy is simple. Weapons out, everything else in,” he said, recalling that his government last Monday gave the go-ahead for the international community to import construction materials into Gaza.

Meanwhile, there was confusion over the Libyan aid ship’s destination on Sunday.

Organizers said it was staying the course for Gaza, despite diplomatic reassurances from Greece that it was headed for the Egyptian port of El-Arish.

“We are heading for Gaza. We will not change direction,” Mashallah Zwei, a representative of the Gaddafi Foundation, a Libyan charity, told AFP by satellite phone from on board the Amalthea.

Mr. Zwei said the ship was currently “close to Crete” and would likely reach Gaza in about two days.

He insisted the foundation was not seeking “a confrontation or a provocation” when asked about the risks of a repeat of an Israeli naval raid on an aid flotilla on May 31 that killed nine Turks.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the attempt to reach Gaza was an “unnecessary provocation.”

“The goods can be transferred to the Gaza Strip through Ashdod port [southern Israel] after being checked,” a statement from his office said.

“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 or that is sails directly to the port of El-Arish.”

Mr. Barak’s office had earlier said the defense minister spoke with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and asked “if Egypt would agree to accept the boat at the port of El-Arish.”

It was not immediately clear if Egypt had acceded to Mr. Barak’s request.

The ship’s agent and the Greek foreign ministry had on Saturday assured Israel that the Moldova-flagged vessel, chartered by a charity linked to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, was heading for El-Arish.

The Gadhafi Foundation, headed by Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of the Libyan leader, insisted however that the ship had not changed course.

“The ship is heading toward Gaza as planned,” executive director Youssef Sawan told AFP by telephone from Tripoli, saying the mission was “purely humane.”

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