No smooth sailing to Gaza
Lebanese activists are going ahead with plans to send two aid ships to Gaza despite Israeli threats, reports Omayma Abdel-Latif
"If Israel treats its 'ally' with such ruthlessness, one cannot imagine what it will do in response to a flotilla coming from the country of Hizbullah."
These were the words of one Lebanese journalist commenting on the latest round in the war of words between Israel and Lebanon over the two aid ships that Lebanon plans to dispatch in defiance of the four-year Israeli blockade of Gaza.
In an attempt to seize the momentum created by the Turkish Freedom Flotilla that attempted to reach Gaza two weeks ago, Lebanese activists have been preparing to send two aid ships to Gaza.
The first, named Naji Al-Ali, is intended to include some 25 journalists and activists, while the second, Miriam, is slated to host some 50 women activists from across the globe, including a number of American nuns.
However, since news broke of the plan to send the vessels to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli blockade, Israel has been carrying out an aggressive diplomatic and media offensive in order to try to abort the plan.
On 16 June, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, urged the Lebanese government and the international community to prevent the ships from trying to break the Gaza blockade.
She warned that "Israel reserves the right to use all necessary means to stop the vessels," and in a letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki- Moon and the Security Council, Shalev called on the Lebanese government "to prevent the ships from leaving".
She also urged the international community "to use its influence to stop the boats departing and to discourage their nationals from taking part in the action." Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently conveyed a similar message in a meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
Israeli officials have not missed any opportunity to paint the Lebanese humanitarian act as "hostile, provocative, and intended to escalate the violence." Israel has also described the activists who plan to man the ships as being linked to Hizbullah in an attempt to make the aid ships into targets for attack.
For its part, though Hizbullah has welcomed efforts aiming to break the blockade of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza, it has nonetheless said that it will not take part in any Gaza-bound aid missions.
According to a statement issued by the movement last Friday, this was in order "not to give Israel a pretext to attack Lebanon."
The statement said that while Hizbullah supported humanitarian efforts to break the siege of Gaza, it had opted to stay away from such efforts because "we do not want to give the Israelis any excuse to carry out aggression against Lebanon."
As part of its attempts to discourage the Lebanese aid ships from trying to reach Gaza, the Israeli media has been publishing details of a planned Israeli navy operation to seize the ships and arrest all on board.
"The navy has prepared Flotilla 13, known as Shayetet, to head an operation like the one two weeks ago to stop the international aid flotilla from Turkey," said a source in the Israeli army.
The planned operation, dubbed "Sky Wind", will apparently include ships with crews of Israeli women that will be sent to intercept the Miriam.
However, for the Lebanese and international activists planning to participate in the aid mission, these details are "a cheap ploy to intimidate people", as one activist put it, and they will not sway them from going ahead with their plans.
One of the organisers of the Naji Al-Ali said that he had received requests from journalists worldwide to sail on the ship to Gaza, despite the Israeli threats.
Official reaction from the Lebanese government is still unclear. According to the newspaper As- Safir on Monday, Beirut was coming under pressure from the Arab countries to prevent the ships from sailing to Gaza, with some activists expressing concern that the Lebanese government might bow to it.
Other activists say that since the initiative is being carried out by private organisations, the Lebanese authorities will not be able to stop the ships as long as they abide by national and international laws.
Lebanese law requires every ship leaving the country's ports to obtain an official permit. On Sunday, the Lebanese ministry of transport issued a permit for the Naji Al-Ali to sail to Cyprus from the port of Tripoli, so long as it complies with Lebanese and international laws.
The organisers of the Miriam said that they had not yet applied for a permit for their ship, which is intended to be loaded with medical supplies for cancer patients in Gaza. It is due to sail from Tripoli to Cyprus and then to Gaza some time between 23 and 25 June.
In a separate development, Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Turkish organisation that was behind the earlier aid flotilla stopped by Israel, announced on Wednesday that it would be sending a further six ships to Gaza in July.
Family members of the nine Turks killed on board the Mavi Marmara passenger ship, one of the ships making up the earlier flotilla, had requested to join the next aid mission, he said.