By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Libyan-chartered ship carrying aid for Palestinians set a new course for Egypt on Wednesday after Israelâ€™s navy warned it away from the blockaded Gaza Strip, an Israeli official said.
The Moldovan-flagged Amalthea was heading to Egyptâ€™s El Arish port, trailed by warships, the official said. Its change of destination was later confirmed by an Egyptian official and the Libyan charity that chartered the vessel.
â€œThe ship will arrive at 2030 (1730 GMT) and is now about 10 miles away from the Arish harbor,â€ Capt. Gamal Abdel Maqsoud, who is in charge of the port, told Reuters.
An Egyptian official confirmed that the boat entered Egyptian waters early on Wednesday evening local time.
The Al Jazeera satellite television channel said those in command of the ship had not ruled out reaching Gaza, but a reporter on board was later monitored as saying the ship was headed to El Arish.
As the ship entered Egyptian waters, it disappeared from the satellite-guided map on MarineTraffic.com where it had earlier been shown, suggesting its GPS tracker was temporarily obstructed or turned off.
Israel had vowed to turn away or seize the Amalthea — renamed â€œHopeâ€ by activists — rather than let it access Gaza, whose Islamist Hamas rulers the Jewish state wants isolated.
Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh urged the activists not to let their ship be diverted from the territoryâ€™s shore and called in a speech for more pro-Palestinian â€œfreedom flotillas.â€
â€œThe sea and land convoys must continue,â€ he said. â€œWe hope we can depend on Islamic nations to help us lift the blockade.â€
The Israelis are mindful of international censure simmering since their commandos killed nine Turks while boarding another Gaza-bound aid ship in Mediterranean high seas on May 31.
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 a risk of arms shipments to Hamas.
â€œAnyone who wants to bring materials there which are not dangerous materials — munitions, etcetera — can bring them through El Arish, can bring them through the (Israeli) port of Ashdod,â€ Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told Israel Radio.
â€œWhat we want is to set the arrangement for inspections, so we can always check and not allow them to bust their way in.â€
Egypt said late on Tuesday that the Amalthea had requested and been granted permission to dock in El Arish, and that authorities planned to transfer its declared haul of 2,000 tons of food and medicine overland to neighboring Gaza.
Unlike Libya, Egypt has full relations with Israel, and has placed clampdowns on its own border with the Palestinian strip.
A charity chaired by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi — son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi — chartered the Amalthea and on Tuesday insisted it would hold course to Gaza.
The charityâ€™s director, Youssef Sawani, initially declined to elaborate on Wednesday, but told a news conference in Tripoli later: â€œWe have decided to change the course of the El Amal (ship) toward El Arish harbor.â€
The ship appeared to have been held up in international waters overnight and Israel Radio aired what it said was a recording of the Cuban captain, identified as Antonio, informing the navy that his engineers were fixing mechanical problems.
â€œIt appears that the ship has overcome its difficulties. It is now heading to El Arish,â€ an Israeli official told Reuters.
But Ayache Derradji, an Al Jazeera reporter aboard the ship, said it was considering options such as heading for Gaza after entering Egyptian waters, where Israelâ€™s navy would not follow.
The inconsistent accounts prompted an Israeli official to suggest on Tuesday that there was disagreement between the Amaltheaâ€™s hired 12-member crew and around 10 passengers determined to defy the Gaza blockade and flag the plight of the territoryâ€™s 1.5 million Palestinians, most of them aid-dependent.
Israel Radio also aired what it said was the navyâ€™s warning to the captain that he would be held responsible for any showdown at sea. Other aid ships have been impounded in Israel, though some of their cargo was eventually trucked to Gaza.
On June 5, the navy commandeered the Irish-owned aid ship Rachel Corrie after it refused orders to turn back or dock in Ashdod for its cargo to be vetted for overland transfer to Gaza.
An Israeli inquiry by a military panel into the navyâ€™s killing of the Turkish activists concluded on Monday there had been faults in planning the May 31 interception but that commandos had resorted to live gunfire in self-defense.
(Additional reporting by Lamine Ghanmi in Rabat, Salah Sarrar in Tripoli, Saleh Salem in Gaza and Erika Solomon in Dubai, Editing by Mark Heinrich)