Another aid ship set to sail for Gaza
Cyprus is first stop, group says
BEIRUT — Another blockade-busting ship with activists and aid on board could embark within days on a new attempt to reach Gaza after Lebanese authorities granted permission yesterday for it to sail first to Cyprus.
Israeli navy commandos raided a blockade-busting international flotilla bound for Gaza on May 31, killing nine pro-Palestinian activists. An international outcry over the raid pressured Israel to ease its three-year-old blockade of the territory.
“We have been granted permission to go to Cyprus, and we are now in the process of making final preparations,’’ said Yasser Kashlak, a 39-year-old Syrian of Palestinian origin who heads the group organizing the trip, the Free Palestine Movement. He said the ship will sail in the next few days, but did not give an exact departure date because of security concerns.
The new challenge to the blockade is occurring just days after Israel eased its three-year land blockade on all but humanitarian goods for Gaza. Israel said Sunday that it will now allow in everything except weapons or other items deemed to have a military use.
Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas militants overran Gaza in 2007. But the blockade did not achieve Israel’s aims of keeping weapons out of the territory, pressuring Gazans to turn on their Hamas rulers, or winning the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas-linked militants for four years.
Lebanon’s transport minister, Ghazi Aridi, said the ship is now docked at the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli and can set sail once it is cleared by port authorities there. He said it would be allowed to sail to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and not directly to Gaza because Lebanon and Israel are technically in a state of war, and Lebanon views Gaza as Israeli-controlled.
The Cypriot government last month banned any vessel setting sail to Gaza from Cypriot shores. But the activists could skirt the ban by sailing to a port in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island, outside the effective control of the internationally recognized, Greek Cypriot-dominated government in the south.
Turkey was the unofficial sponsor of the flotilla in May, and all of those killed in the clash were Turkish.
In Cyprus, Stefanos Stefanou, government spokesman, said authorities have not received official word that a Gaza-bound ship is planning to sail from Lebanon and the organizers did not say which port in Cyprus to which they planned to sail.
Israel says that even though it has eased its land blockade of Gaza, it maintains a naval blockade and will not allow any ships to dock there for fear they could bring weapons to Hamas.
In a separate development yesterday, a Jerusalem planning body approved a plan to raze 22 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make room for an Israeli tourist center, a decision that could raise tensions in the divided city and deepen the conflict with the Obama administration.
In March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had pressured Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, to hold up the plan so authorities could consult with Palestinians who would lose their homes — a delay that appeared to be aimed at fending off criticism from the United States.
Final approval, which would require an Interior Ministry green light, could take months.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley voiced concern. “This would appear to be the kind of action that undermines trust and potentially incites emotions and adds to the risk of violence,’’ he said.