Israel warns it will stop ship heading for Gaza

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The Independent Online

Israel warned yesterday that a ship sponsored by a group headed by the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and currently crossing the Mediterranean would not be allowed to reach its stated destination of Gaza.

The Moldovan-registered ship – renamed Hope for the voyage – left Greece on Saturday night for a trip intended to take between 70 and 80 hours. The organisers, the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, say the ship, with a crew of 12 and ten passengers on board, is carrying 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine.

Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, has described the dispatch of the vessel as a "provocation" and its foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told Army Radio yesterday: "I say very clearly, no ship will arrive in Gaza. We will not permit our sovereignty to be harmed."

The Libyan organisers have sought to play down expectations of a repeat of the violent confrontation aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara last month, which resulted in the loss of nine Turkish lives when Israeli commandos boarded the ship.

Youssef Sawani, executive director of the Libyan agency, insisted that the vessel's sole purpose was to deliver its humanitarian cargo to Gaza and added: "It's not to make an event or a show in high seas or somewhere else."

There was some confusion yesterday over whether the ship would press on towards Gaza in the seemingly certain event that Israeli naval forces will order it to halt before entering Gaza's coastal waters, or board it.

While the Greek foreign ministry says the ship's registered destination is Egypt and there have been suggestions that the vessel will dock at the Egyptian port of El Arish if it is barred from Gaza, Associated Press yesterday quoted Mr Sawani as saying it was still en route to Gaza.

Mr Sawani told AP that it was not seeking any "provocation" of Israel.

Israel has announced it intends to ease the four-year land blockade of Gaza but has made clear it does not intend to lift the maritime embargo on the territory. It has exerted diplomatic pressure – including on Egypt – to ensure the vessel does not make for Gaza, and Mr Lieberman said yesterday he hoped "common sense" would prevail.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials confirmed yesterday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had raised with former US president Bill Clinton last week the possibility that Mr Clinton might help to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier seized by Gaza militants four years ago.

Mr Netanyahu is under renewed pressure from a fresh high-profile campaign launched by Sergeant Shalit's parents and supporters to secure his release.

An official said, however, that there was no intention to replace the current mediator, a senior member of the German intelligence services. Israel says the two points of dispute are over the release of some prominent Hamas militants "with blood on their hands" and a demand that the prisoners it regards as most dangerous should be sent to Gaza and not the West Bank.

Hamas says Israel reneged on an earlier agreement on a prisoner exchange.