Libyan aid ship
The aid ship commissioned by a Libyan state charity prepares to set sail to Gaza on July 9, 2010. Photo by AP
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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Photo by AP

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday evening that an aid ship organized by a Libyan charity, trying to reach Gaza in violation of an Israeli naval blockade, was an "unnecessary provocation."

"It would be better if it didn't happen at all," the defense minister added, stressing that "cargo can be transferred to Gaza via the Ashdod port following inspection, but we won't allow weapons, ammunition and warfare materials to enter Gaza."

Earlier Saturday, Palestinian Legislative Council member Jamal Al-Khudari and Israeli Arab MK Ahmed Tibi told the Palestinian news agency Ma'an that the Libyan aid ship will head to Gaza's port and will not be diverted. This after Israel's Foreign Ministry had announced earlier that the ship's crew, though originally bound for Gaza, had agreed to dock in Egypt's El Arish port instead to avoid violating Israel's blockade.

According to the ministry, the change in destination was agreed to by the ship's captain following talks between Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Greek and Moldavian counterparts.

Al-Khudari, head of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, told Ma'an that he had been in constant contact with the organizers of the ship, who are expected to bring 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

A spokesman at the Greek Foreign Ministry said the ship would head for El Arish. An official from ACA Shipping, which owns the ship, told Reuters ahead of the ship's departure that "the ship will leave in a few minutes for Gaza. If they don't let us reach there [Gaza] we will head to El Arish harbor in Egypt."

The ship - named the "Amalthia" - set sail Saturday from the Greek port of Lavrio with 12 crew and 15 activists and supporters on board, and about 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid supplied by the Gadhafi International Charity and Development Association, headed by Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the second-born son of the Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

Tibi, of Israel's Ra'am Ta'al party, confirmed that the ship had set sail and would arrive in Gaza some 40 hours after the departure. The Israeli Arab MK had told Israel Radio earlier that "sailing to Gaza is a political and humane act. I don't know what Israel will do, because it has vowed to stop the ship, but Gaza remains the destination."

"Sailing [the aid ship] is a form of passive resistance, which is preferable to any other form of resistance," Tibi added.

Tibi had assisted the ship's Libyan organizers, providing them with a list of items needed by residents of the Gaza Strip.

Tibi told Haaretz that the ship was only carrying humanitarian aid. He said: "[The cargo] consists of food, particularly baby food, cereal, various kinds of juice, various medicines, especially for kidney patients, a generator and other aid that doesn't include prohibited items." He added that there were no clubs aboard the ship.

Youssef Sawani, executive director of the Libyan charity organizing the aid trip said  that "we hope the Israelis will not ban the ship from entering the port of Gaza. If they decide to do so we have no means to object to that. This is a peaceful mission."

"Our sole goal and intention is to have the goods delivered to those who need it. It's not to make an event or a show in high seas or somewhere else," he said before the ship left the Greek port.

The Israel Defense Forces' assessment is that the ship will not ultimately reach Gaza, as a result of contacts by Lieberman and Barak. They said the ship was expected to dock in El-Arish and its cargo is to be transferred to Gaza after being inspected.

They added that the Libyan ship is thought to be too large to dock in Gaza and the Israeli response to the Mavi Marmara, aboard which 9 Turkish activists were killed in a clash with Israeli commandos at the end of May, is thought to have created a deterrent to similar future attempts to run the naval blockade.

On Friday, Israel launched a diplomatic move at the United Nations in efforts to enlist the international community to help prevent the Libyan aid ship from sailing to Gaza.

In an official letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Israeli ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev wrote that "Israel calls upon the international community to exert its influence on the government of Libya to demonstrate responsibility and prevent the ship from departing to the Gaza Strip."

Shalev's letter to Ban went on to clarify that "Israel reserves the right under international law to prevent this ship from violating the existing naval blockade on the Gaza Strip."

Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza in 2007 following a bloody Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. Israel recently eased the terms of the land blockade on the territory, following a deadly raid of a Turkish aid ship, but the naval blockade has so far remained in place.

In the letter, Shalev further urged the international community "to discourage their nationals from taking part in such action," adding that Israel "expects the international community to ensure that this ship does not sail."

"The declared intentions of this mission are even more questionable and provocative given the recent measures taken by Israel to ensure the increase of humanitarian aid flowing into the Gaza Strip," the letter went on to say, adding that Israel has taken upon itself the responsibility of ensuring the transfer of humanitarian aid into the Palestinian territory.

Copies of the letter were also submitted to the current president of the UN Security Council as well as the president of the General Assembly, a Libyan national who previously served as Libya's foreign minister.