Will Libya aid ship force more changes to Israel's Gaza blockade?

The Libya-sponsored Almathea is the latest of several attempts to break Israel's Gaza blockade since a fatal raid killed nine pro-Palestinian activists on May 31.

By , Correspondent

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    Crates of cooking oil are loaded onto the cargo ship 'Amalthea' at the port of Lavrio, about 37 miles southeast of Athens, on July 9. A charity headed by the second son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is sending an aid boat from Greece to Gaza to break the Israeli "siege," the organizers said.
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As a potential confrontation looms between Israel and the Libyan sponsors of a Gaza-bound aid ship, Israel's naval blockade of the impoverished coastal strip faces a new test.

A charity headed by Saif Qaddafi, the son of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, has organized a ship with a cargo of 2,000 tons food stuffs. Saif Qaddafi joins groups in Iran and Lebanon – all countries which Israel views as hostile – in declaring a desire to reach Gaza.

The international furor over Israel's killing of nine pro-Palestinian activists in late May weakened the Israeli siege on Gaza, but follow-up efforts have fizzled.

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"It's not an easy thing to organize such ships…. There is much talk but little action. That doesn’t mean in another couple of months there won't be another action," says Shlomo Brom, a fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

"What we can learn from the previous attempts is that when the ship is manned by a few activists, it is not a problem," adds Mr. Brom, a former head of strategic planning in the Israeli army. "It becomes a problem when there are many people on board."

First Israeli report on flotilla raid

There were more than 500 activists on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship that was raided by Israeli commandos. In contrast, there are only 27 on board Mr. Qaddafi's ship, the Amalthea, according to the Israeli Arab parliament member Ahmed Tibi, who has been in telephone contact with the Almalthea's organizers.

After reaching the island of Crete on Sunday, the ship is back at sea heading toward Gaza. It should reach its destination by Wednesday unless intercepted by Israel, he says. Carrying 2,000 tons of aid cargo for Gaza, he says the activists have no plans to clash with Israeli soldiers.

"The ship is a double message: a political and humanitarian protest against the siege,'' Mr. Tibi says. "They [the Almalthea organizers] can't sit quietly amid what is going on in Gaza."

The mission comes as an Israeli military commission reviewing the military's handling of the Mavi Marmara intercept issued a critical report Monday. Led by retired general Giora Eiland, the so-called Eiland commission found flawed Israeli preparation – notably intelligence and battle guidelines – heading into the raid. But it did not call for any senior leaders to resign over the incident.

Activists wary of Israeli force?

A week after the Mavi Marmara raid, the MV Rachel Corrie aid ship was intercepted by the Israeli navy and activists were peacefully tugged into the Israeli port of Ashdod. Iran's Revolutionary Guard had offered to accompany an Iranian aid flotilla, but that – along with Lebanese efforts – has yet to come to fruition.

Some say activists may be wary of provoking Israel.

"With all the negative fallout for Israel, there appears to be some deterrent effect from the ugly things on the Mavi Marmara," says Yossi Alpher, editor of the Palestinian-Israel online opinion forum Bitterlemons.org. "Activists are not so eager to challenge Israel. That's what appears to be the case."

PR game, with Israel forced to play goalie

Though the Mavi Marmara is credited with pushing Israel to drop a ban on most civilian goods entering the Gaza strip, the naval blockade remains in place, and exports and civilians face tight restrictions on leaving Gaza.

On the other hand, Israel's international isolation has grown, and it faces the prospect of a United Nations-sponsored international inquiry into the Turkish flotilla intercept.

Israel says the naval blockade is necessary to prevent an arms build-up by Hamas in Gaza. Critics say it’s punishing Gaza's 1.5 million residents with a humanitarian crisis.

Even though the Libyan effort by the nonprofit Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations is smaller in scope, it still has the potential to focus world attention on Gaza.

"It’s a PR game where the Israeli government is forced into the role of the goalkeeper," says Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based expert on the Middle East. "Even though the naval blockade may help Israel's security, it has negative connotations in the press around the world. This is a weak spot, where many countries that want to challenge Israel will try to strike.''

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