Israel thwarts Libyan attempt to break Gaza blockade

JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday thwarted the latest attempt to breach its sea blockade on Gaza, diverting a Libyan-chartered vessel to the northern Egyptian port of al Arish.

After a 10-hour standoff with the Israeli navy, the Amalthea announced that it would dock in al Arish. As it arrived, Egypt announced that it would transfer 2,000 tons in aid to Gaza.

Israel had vowed that it would stop the Moldovan-flagged vessel from reaching Gaza by any means possible, and it defended its right to maintain a blockade on the Gaza Strip.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. had urged the Libyan government "to avoid any unnecessary confrontation" and that Washington had emphasized that all parties involved should behave "responsibly" to meet the needs of Palestinians in Gaza.

The 302-foot Amalthea had left Greece on Saturday carrying a crew of 12, the Libyan charity that hired the vessel reported on its website. There were also nine passengers: six Libyans, a Nigerian, a Moroccan and an Algerian.

On Tuesday night, the ship stalled about 100 miles from the Gaza coast, where the captain announced that the vessel was experiencing technical difficulties.

There's been wide speculation that Israel somehow sabotaged the engines of other ships to thwart them from reaching Gaza. Israeli news media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet had supported using engine sabotage to stop the ships, but they didn't specify the methods that may have been used.

Israeli military spokesman Barak Raz confirmed that Israel had contacted the ship Tuesday night and had engaged in negotiations to find an alternative port. Israel also had offered to let the ship dock in the Israeli port of Ashkelon, where previous attempted flotillas had been towed.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had urged the Amalthea to challenge the Israelis by setting course toward Gaza, and he called for more "pro-Palestinian freedom flotillas."

"The sea and land convoys must continue," he said. "We hope we can depend on Islamic nations to help us lift the blockade."

The latest attempt to break Israel's blockade on Gaza came only days after the Israeli military released its report on the six ships that sailed toward Gaza on May 31. The Israeli navy intercepted that flotilla, killing nine people and wounding dozens on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara. In Monday's report, Israel cleared itself of any negligence or wrongdoing.

Egyptian authorities said they'd facilitate the transfer of nearly 2,000 tons in food and medical aid on board the Amalthea. The goods will be conveyed by land through the Rafah crossing, which connects Gaza with Egypt.

"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," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit had said earlier.

An international outcry after the May 31 flotilla raid focused on why Israel continued to enforce a stringent blockade on Gaza more than three years after Hamas seized control of the coastal strip. Israel has since loosened its restriction, allowing in a greater variety of goods in greater quantity.

News of the Libyan aid ship made the front pages of most Arabic-language newspapers in the region and updates appeared throughout the day Wednesday on Middle Eastern satellite TV channels. On social networking sites, however, the mission didn't generate nearly the buzz as the ill-fated Turkish attempt to thwart the blockade did.

On Facebook and Twitter, which Arab and Muslim activists frequently use to avoid government censorship of other forms of communication, there were mostly generic news updates throughout the day.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed to this article from Cairo.)


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