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The Almathea: Israel Orders Gaza-Bound Aid Ship To Egypt

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JERUSALEM — A Libyan aid boat carrying supplies for Gaza was sailing toward Egypt late Tuesday instead of trying to run a naval blockade of the Palestinian territory, Israeli military officials said, apparently defusing a potential confrontation on the high seas.

The latest challenge to the blockade came a day after Israel's military admitted mistakes in the May 31 confrontation aboard a Turkish ship that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead and brought a wave of world criticism that forced the Jewish state to ease restrictions imposed on the Hamas-ruled territory.

A spokesman for the Libyan mission insisted the boat still intended to try to reach the Palestinian territory but indicated those on board would not violently resist any efforts to stop them.

"First and foremost, we want to arrive to Gaza. If this is impossible, we don't want to subject anyone to danger," Youssef Sawani, an official with the Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation who was in contact with the boat, told the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television station.

The Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcement was made, said the ship's captain informed the Israeli navy ships tailing him that he was heading for the Egyptian port of el-Arish.

Even so, they said Israeli naval vessels would continue to accompany the Libyan ship, because a last-minute course change could point the ship toward Gaza. El-Arish is on the Egyptian Sinai coast next to Gaza.

Just before midnight, the ship's crew said they were stuck because of engine trouble. In a recording played on Israel Radio, a crew member said he did not know how long it would take to repair the main engine and resume their journey.

The Gadhafi foundation spokesman, said communications with the boat had been jammed and the vessel was moving at a slow pace because of the Israeli warships that were trailing it.

Earlier the Israeli military confirmed that it made contact with the Libyan vessel and said "the navy has begun preparing to stop the ship." Organizers said they were ordered to divert to el-Arish.

The Gadhafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which is headed by the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, said the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea, left Greece on Saturday carrying 2,000 tons of food and medical supplies.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev repeated a standing offer earlier Tuesday, inviting the activists to sail to the Israeli port of Ashdod and unload the supplies there.

On Monday, Egyptian officials said if the Libyan ship docked at el-Arish, Egypt would transfer its supplies to Gaza.

The latest encounter came less than two months after Israeli commandos clashed with protesters aboard the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara. Several other aid ships have been commandeered without incident and towed to Ashdod.

Israel dismisses the need for ships to bring aid to Gaza. Israel responded to international pressure over the bloody May 31 raid by easing the movement of goods through land crossings. It canceled its list of a few permitted humanitarian items and replaced it with the opposite – a list of banned items, mostly weapons and products that can be used for military purposes – allowing in all the rest.

But it maintained the naval blockade, imposed after Hamas overran the Palestinian territory in June 2007.

Israel insists the naval blockade on Gaza is vital to keep rockets, missiles, explosives and other weapons out of the hands of the Islamic militant group, which is sworn to the destruction of Israel and has dispatched suicide bombers who have killed hundreds of Israelis.

The Gaza blockade and the flotillas challenging it have already caused Israel serious diplomatic damage, putting it on the defensive against demands for inquiries, criticism for its role in the plight of Gaza and underlining a growing rift with Turkey, once one of its few allies in the Muslim world.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara will keep pushing for an international inquiry into the Israeli raid on May 31.

Israel says its commandos were defending themselves after being attacked by pro-Palestinian activists, and has resisted calls for a U.N.-led inquiry into the raid. Activists on board the ship have said they acted in self-defense after Israeli troops landed on their ship.

Findings released Monday from a military-commissioned report found that flawed intelligence-gathering and planning led to the botched May 31 raid but also said the commandos were justified in opening fire and killing nine after being confronted by violent pro-Palestinian activists on board one of the ships.

Israel also has appointed a civilian inquiry with a mandate limited to investigating the legality of the operation. Two international observers have been attached to the civilian commission, which is led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court judge.

In a development related to the May 31 raid, Israel's parliament on Tuesday voted to remove privileges from an Arab member, Hanin Zoabi, who was on board one of the other ships in the Turkish flotilla. She will not be allowed to leave the country, have a diplomatic passport or get her legal fees covered by the parliament.

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Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.