x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Israel in new threat of attack on aid ship

Navy sends ship to shadow Libyan charity freighter as captain is reported to have changed course to Al Arish in Egypt.

RAMALLAH // The Israeli army yesterday issued a warning to a Libyan ship to stay away from Gazan waters, saying it was prepared to use force to prevent the ship from reaching Gaza with a cargo of humanitarian supplies.

Agencies reported late last night that an Israeli navy ship had been sent to shadow the Moldovan-flagged, Greek-registered ship, Al Amal(Hope), though it was unclear if it was also intended to intercept the ship. Al Amal was still 185km from Gaza, and Libya's Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which organised the aid ship, insisted it was maintaining course. But Israeli officials later said the ship's captain had agreed to divert the boat and asked for directions in charting a course to the Egyptian port of Al Arish.

The ship is carrying 15 activists, 12 crewmembers and 2,000 tonnes of food and medicine and was expected to arrive off the coast of Gaza early this morning. Mashallah Zwei, the ship's captain, had earlier told Agence France-Presse that the Israeli army had warned him to alter course for the Egyptian port of Al Arish, some 40km south of the Gaza-Egypt border. "We explained to the Israeli authorities that our original destination was Gaza and that we were not there to make provocation," Mr Zwei said. "We also explained that we were carrying food and medicine and asked them to let us unload our cargo to Gaza."

An Israeli army spokesman confirmed that the navy had made contact with Al Amal but would not comment on what communication had taken place. He refused to say whether the navy would wait until the ship reached Gazan waters before any interception, or whether it could be boarded in international waters, as with the botched raid on the Turkish Freedom Flotilla in May that resulted in the killing of nine activists. "Intercepting the ship is a last resort, and we hope it will change course before that becomes necessary. If it doesn't then we will know what to do," the Isreali spokesman said

As the standoff developed, Palestinians and Israelis voiced their disquiet at the Israeli army's official probe into its navy's actions during the Freedom Flotilla raid. The investigation, led by a retired general, Giora Eiland, found that while there had been intelligence-gathering and operational "mistakes", there had neither been "major failure" nor "negligence".As a result, the report did not recommend punitive action against any of those involved. "The investigation was not supposed to deal with the political-strategic aspect, so there was only so much you could expect," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst, who criticised the report for not calling for the resignation of the navy commander, Eliezer Marom.

Mr Alpher called the report a "non-event", and said the findings of the Turkel commission - a five-member civilian panel led by Jacob Turkel, a former Israeli Supreme Court judge - would be more important. "If the Turkel commission comes up with something like a whitewash, then growing international criticism that Israel has not investigated itself properly is more justified," said Mr Alpher. He said the composition of the Turkel commission - which includes two Israelis, an academic and a retired army general and two international observers, one of whom is a member of the Friends of Israel organisation - "does not bode well".

An editorial in the Haaretz newspaper said the two investigations into the flotilla raid were inadequate, and urged Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, to allow an investigation into the government's decision-making process. "One investigation looks at the army and the other at the world; no investigation is looking into the Netanyahu-Barak government," Haaretz said.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, said Israel was "constitutionally incapable" of investigating itself properly and said both existing inquiries were simply exercises in public relations in an attempt to "appease" international criticism of the flotilla raid. "Israel has never carried out an impartial investigation of itself, and is constitutionally incapable of doing so," said Ms Buttu. "The logic of these commissions falls within the logic of the Israeli system, which, like apartheid South Africa, is inherently discriminatory."

Ms Buttu said neither commission was well-placed to address the legality of the raid, nor investigate its moral basis. "Israel wants the world to believe this was a botched raid, thus implying that the raid itself was sound. They will never say that the raid was illegal and immoral, that the raid was preventing a humanitarian mission to break an illegal siege of 1.5 million people." @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae