Lebanon's aid flotilla ready to set sail for Gaza despite threats and hurdles

Despite threats by Israel, a Lebanese ship filled with humanitarian supplies could depart the northern city of Tripoli within days.

Palestinians at the Gaza City port show their support for the Gaza-bound ship from Lebanon at a demonstration yesterday.
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BEIRUT // A Lebanese ship filled with humanitarian supplies and activists keen to break the three-year Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip could depart the northern city of Tripoli within days or even hours, according to organisers, despite threats by Israel to interdict the vessels and a warning from Cyprus that attempts to run the blockade from its waters were unwelcome.

The voyage has been encumbered by bureaucratic and political obstacles from the start. UN resolution 1701 bars any attempts to enter Israeli territory directly from Lebanon, so Lebanon's minister of transportation has only given permission to a French-registered ship, the Julia, to embark for Cyprus. But authorities in Nicosia have barred the ship from entering Cypriot waters, so the vessel - to be renamed the Naji al Ali after a famed Palestinian cartoonist - is expected to leave for Cyprus but change course for the Gaza Strip.

The organisers of the endeavour said they had been authorised to depart Lebanon immediately, but they were unwilling to announce the exact time of the departure, apparently in the hope of confusing the Israeli military about their intentions. "We have been granted permission to go to Cyprus, and we are now in the process of making final preparations," Yasser Kashlak, a Syrian of Palestinian origin who heads the group organising the trip, The Free Palestine Movement, said.

The exact time of the ship's departure was not the only secret yesterday. Organisers of a group of women activists led by the wife of a former Lebanese general once held in an Israeli jail, Ali al Hajj, said they would be leaving Lebanon in a ship named the Mariam. This group claims it will have more than 50 women aboard, but it was not immediately clear that the ship even exists. Lebanon's transportation minister, Ghazi Aridi, emphatically denied the existence of a second ship and insisted that no permission had been requested or given for a second ship to join the Julia on the voyage. "There is a campaign called 'Mariam', and the organisers of the campaign to lift the Gaza blockade did not say there was a vessel carrying that name," a local newspaper quoted Mr Aridi as saying. "I do not know anything about a second aid ship", he added. Earlier, he was quoted as saying that the Julia and the Mariam were the same vessel.

Whether two ships or one, the Israel military has already declared that the Islamic militant group Hizbollah is behind the effort, and that the boats were likely to be filled with weapons intended to help Hamas, their allies in Gaza. Israeli officials have said that Lebanon is an especially unwelcome collaborator in the effort to break the siege because it remains hostile towards the Jewish state.

Hizbollah has denied any association with the effort, although Mr Hajj joined the group after his release from an Israeli prison in 2008. The Lebanese government has responded to Israel's warnings about aid ships leaving Lebanese shores with a warning of its own. The Associated Press quoted an unnamed Lebanese official as saying that the Lebanese government had sent Israel a letter saying it would hold Israel responsible for any violence befalling ships departing its shores, although it did not specify how it plans to do so.