- Associated Press - Monday, June 21, 2010

BEIRUT (AP) — Another blockade-busting ship with activists and aid on board could embark within days on a new attempt to reach Gaza after Lebanese authorities granted permission Monday for it to sail first to Cyprus.

Israeli navy commandos raided a blockade-busting international flotilla bound for Gaza on May 31, killing nine pro-Palestinian activists. An international outcry over the raid pressured Israel to ease its 3-year-old blockade of the Palestinian territory.

“We have been granted permission to go to Cyprus, and we are now in the process of making final preparations,” said Yasser Kashlak, a 39-year-old Syrian of Palestinian origin who heads the group organizing the trip, the Free Palestine Movement. He said the ship plans to sail in the next few days but did not give an exact departure date because of security concerns.

The new challenge to the blockade comes just days after Israel eased its ban on all but humanitarian goods for Gaza. Israel said Sunday it will now allow in everything except weapons or other items deemed to have a military use.

Israel imposed the blockade of Gaza after Hamas militants overran Gaza in 2007. But the blockade did not achieve Israel’s aims of keeping weapons out of the territory, pressuring Gazans to turn on their Hamas rulers or winning the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas-linked militants for four years.

Lebanese Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi said the ship named Julia is now docked at the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli and can set sail once it is cleared by port authorities there. He said it would be allowed to sail to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and not directly to Gaza because Lebanon and Israel are technically in a state of war and Lebanon views Gaza as Israeli-controlled.

The Cypriot government last month banned any vessel setting sail to Gaza from Cypriot shores. But the activists could skirt the ban by sailing to a port in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island, outside the effective control of the internationally recognized, Greek Cypriot-dominated government in the south.

Turkey was the unofficial sponsor of the flotilla in May, and all of those killed in the clash were Turkish.

In Cyprus, government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said authorities have not received any official word that a Gaza-bound ship is planning to sail from Lebanon, and the organizers did not say which port in Cyprus they planned to sail to.

Israel has made clear that even though it has eased its land blockade of Gaza, it maintains a naval blockade and will not allow any ships to dock there for fear they could bring weapons to Hamas.

About a week after the deadly flotilla raid in May, Israeli forces seized another Gaza-bound ship with aid and activists on it without meeting resistance, preventing it from breaking the blockade. No one was hurt.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, warned Friday that the attempt to sail from Lebanon could escalate tensions and affect peace and security in the region. She cited in particular the ship’s departure from Lebanon, which “remains in a state of hostility with Israel.” She also cited “a possible link” between the organizers and the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government and fought a war with Israel in 2006, has denied it is involved in organizing the Lebanese ship.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Monday urged all parties to avoid actions that would hinder Israel’s easing of the blockade and “give Israel the opportunity to backtrack and return to the siege.”

The Free Palestine Movement, which is organizing the ship from Lebanon, also participated in the international flotilla involved in the deadly raid. Asked about the Israeli warnings, Mr. Kashlak, the organizer, said, “The dogs that bark don’t bite.”

Julia is one of two ships planning a blockade-busting trip from Lebanon to Gaza this month. Another ship called Mariam, named after Virgin Mary, also is planning to make the voyage, carrying some 50 female activists including Arabs, Europeans and four American nuns as well as cancer medication to Gaza. It was not clear whether the two ships would leave together.

The Israeli military said Monday it was already ready to increase the transfer of food and household items to Gaza by 30 percent so that up to 140 trucks filled with goods would be able to pass into Gaza daily. But it remained unclear when desperately needed construction materials would begin to flow across the border.

Mr. Netanyahu defended his decision to ease the blockade on Monday, saying it would boost Israel’s security and help improve the country’s battered image.

Associated Press writer Menelaos Hadjicostis contributed to this report from Nicosia, Cyprus.

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