Lebanese Organizers Mum on When Their Aid Flotilla Will Head to Gaza Strip

The organizers of a planned Lebanese flotilla to Gaza refused yesterday to give the precise date their ships plan to sail. The Lebanese authorities said they knew of only one ship that had received permission to leave for Cyprus.

Pro-Palestinian protesters picketing outside the Port of Oakland

Lebanese Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi told Lebanese and Arab news outlets that he had personally approved one ship, the Julia, to set sail from Tripoli in northern Lebanon toward Cyprus. Aridi said Lebanese law prohibited any ship from sailing from Lebanon to Israel or ports under Israeli occupation. He rejected claims that he or the Lebanese government had been pressured to stop the ship from setting out.

Aridi also said the organizers had requested a permit to sail to Cyprus, and he was not responsible for whether the Cypriots will allow the ship to enter their territorial waters or dock.

Senior officials in Jerusalem say they believe Cyprus will not allow the Julia to sail from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip.

The journalist Thaer Ghandour, a spokesman for the organizers, told the Al-Arabiya television channel yesterday that the ship was carrying reporters, foreigners and a cargo of "cement, children's games and medical equipment."

The Julia will sail under the name Naji al-Ali, a Palestinian caricaturist sharply critical of Israel and Arab leaders who was assassinated in London in 1987.


Over Aridi's denial of knowledge of other ships, organizers of a ship of women activists, the Mariam, insisted that it was to carry 50 Lebanese and European women, including nuns, as well as medical equipment, particularly for cancer patients. The Mariam would apply for a sailing permit in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the European campaign to end the siege on Gaza announced that preparations have begun for another ship to sail toward the Strip. A statement released by the movement's headquarters in Brussels said the ship would carry women passengers as well as medical and humanitarian aid. It would set sail in a few weeks.

Officials in Jerusalem say they believe Cyprus will not allow the Julia to dock at a Cypriot port because, following quiet understandings with Israel before the previous flotilla, the president of Cyprus prohibited ships from sailing from its ports to Gaza. Israel has been told that the presidential order is still in force.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke on the phone Sunday with his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos. A Spanish source said Lieberman asked Moratinos to convey a message to Lebanon that Israel views flotillas as a provocation and will hold Beirut responsible.

The Spanish ambassador to Lebanon met yesterday with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and said Lebanon must do all it can to stop flotillas and avoid an escalation in the region. The envoys of Italy, France, Germany and the European Union have all made similar demands over the past few days.