TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — A Lebanese ship carrying aid and women activists hoping to break Israel's Gaza blockade will set sail Sunday from Lebanon despite warnings that they will not be allowed to make it past Cyprus, organizers said Thursday.
The ship cannot travel directly to Gaza from Lebanon because Beirut is still technically at war with Israel, forcing the vessel to pass through a third country — in this case, Cyprus — before heading for the blockaded Palestinian territory.
But on Thursday, the Cypriot ambassador to Lebanon told The Associated Press that the boat, the Mariam, will be turned back when it reaches Cyprus.
"We decided that such a ship will not be allowed to enter Cyprus and if such a Gaza-bound ship docks in a Cypriot port the crew and the passengers will be deported to their country of origin," Kyriacos Kouros said.
Kouros said Cyprus has a "moral and legal responsibility" to those allowed into its waters, and that a blockade-busting ship could endanger lives along with "regional peace and stability."
But organizer Samar al-Hajj was undeterred Thursday, and said the ship, named after the Virgin Mary, will set out with between up to 75 female activists on a mission to deliver cancer medication, books and toys.
"We are not children who can be told to stay home," al-Hajj told the AP after a chaotic news conference outside the port in Tripoli, where security forces prevented the group from speaking to the media from the ship.
Sending blockade-busting ships has become a highly charged issue since Israeli naval commandos boarded a flotilla of Gaza-bound ships on May 31, killing nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists.
Israel says its troops opened fire after coming under attack by activists wielding clubs, axes and metal rods. The activists said they were defending their ship after it was attacked by Israeli soldiers in international waters.
The raid sparked an international outcry and forced Israel to ease its blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. Israel, along with Egypt, imposed the embargo in June 2007 after Hamas militants took control of the area.
Israel has lifted virtually all restrictions on food, medicine and consumer goods, but still maintains its naval blockade, saying that Hamas could sneak weapons into Gaza.
Asked whether sending the Mariam is a provocation given that medicine is now allowed into Gaza, al-Hajj said the ship was "symbolic" with the aim of lifting the blockade entirely.
The Israeli army would not say whether it would intercept the vessel, saying only it is "monitoring the situation and preparing accordingly."
Daniel Zonshine, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Israel has no objections to delivering humanitarian aid, but that any shipments must be coordinated through Israel.
Al-Hajj said Lebanon's president, prime minister and parliament speaker did not respond to her requests to meet, which appeared to signal the government's lack of support for the venture.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Aisha Mohammed in Jerusalem contributed to this report.