JERUSALEM, July 14 (Reuters) – A Libyan-chartered ship carrying aid for Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip was loitering in international waters on Wednesday after the Israeli navy warned it to steer clear, a military spokeswoman said.
Egypt said late on Tuesday that the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea had asked to dock in its El Arish port instead of Gaza, but the Israeli spokeswoman said the ship was stationary and that naval vessels were tracking it.
“It is 55 miles (88 km) from Egypt, and 80 miles (128 km) from Gaza, in international waters. We are observing,” she said.
Israel has vowed to turn away or seize the ship — renamed “Hope” by activists — rather than let it reach Gaza, whose Islamist Hamas rulers the Jewish state wants to keep isolated. But the Israelis are mindful of international censure that crested after the navy killed nine Turks in May when commandoes boarded another Gaza-bound aid ship in international waters.
Israel Radio aired what it said was a recording of the ship’s Cuban captain, Antonio, informing the navy of a mechanical failure that was being tended to by engineers. “I cannot tell you how much time will it take. As soon as we are ready, I’ll tell you, over,” he is heard saying in English. The charity chaired by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, which chartered the Amalthea said on Tuesday that it would hold course to Gaza with its declared cargo of 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine.
The conflicting reports about the ship’s final destination 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 reach Gaza by Wednesday. Rerouting to El Arish would still require the ship to skirt Gaza.
Al-Jazeera satellite channel, which has a correspondent aboard the ship, said four Israeli warships were in pursuit. 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 risk of arms shipments to Hamas.
On June 5, the navy commandeered the Irish-owned aid ship Rachel Corrie after it refused orders to turn back or dock in Israel for its cargo to be vetted for possible transfer to Gaza.
Criticism of Israel, led by its Muslim former ally Turkey, has focused on the continued plight of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians, many of whom depend on U.N. aid handouts.
There has also been rancour over the limited powers and mandate of two internal Israeli investigations into the killings aboard the Mavi Marmara by marine commandos who said they opened fire after being set upon by passengers wielding clubs, knives and a gun. Activists aboard the ship disputed that account.
The first inquiry, by a military panel under a retired general, concluded on Monday there had been faults in planning the high seas interception but that lethal force was warranted.
(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)