A Libyan ship carrying aid for Palestinians yesterday changed course and docked at Egypt's El Arish port after Israel warned it not to run the Gaza Strip blockade. The Amalthea, which had originally declared it was sailing to the Gaza coast, will unload its cargo in El-Arish, from where it will be trucked via the Rafah crossing to Gaza.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit yesterday said Egypt had permitted the vessel to dock in El-Arish, at its crew's request.
It is not clear what persuaded the ships' passengers, members of the Libyan Gadhafi International association, to agree not to sail to Gaza. The association belongs to Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi.
Israel Radio reporter Eran Singer reported yesterday that the decision was reached following mediation by Austrian millionaire Martin Schlaff, who is close to Libya's ruling family and to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Dozens of people waited in the Gaza port yesterday for the ship. Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh pleaded in vain with the ship's organizers not to change course. He called for more "freedom flotillas" in a speech.
An Egyptian official said the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea arrived in El-Arish, in the Sinai, in mid-evening and would begin unloading cargo.
"Medical supplies and passengers will enter Gaza through the Rafah border (crossing ), while food will enter through the Awja border," said Captain Gamal Abdel Maqsoud, who is in charge of the port.
He said Egypt's Red Crescent would be responsible for taking the goods over both borders and had trucks waiting in El-Arish.
Israel had vowed to turn away or seize the Amalthea - renamed "Hope" by activists - rather than let it access Gaza.
Israel was also mindful of international censure simmering since commandos killed nine Turks while boarding another Gaza-bound aid ship in the Mediterranean on May 31.
Outcry at the bloodshed aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara prompted Jerusalem to ease overland trade with Gaza. But it kept the sea blockade, citing a risk of arms shipments to Hamas.
Youssef Sawani, director of Gadhafi International, confirmed earlier that it had decided to divert the ship away from Gaza for safety reasons.
"It was unacceptable for us to enter into a confrontation and risk bloodshed," he said. "The aims of Amalthea have been achieved without bloodshed and the result is gains for the Palestinians."
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.
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said the cargo could go through to Gaza.
"Anyone who wants to bring materials there which are not dangerous materials - munitions, etcetera - can bring them through El-Arish, can bring them through the Ashdod port," Meridor said on Israel Radio.
The ship appeared to have been held up in international waters the previous night. 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.