Ominous clouds gathered over the Mediterranean Thursday, June 24 after Israel announced that ships bound for Gaza would be deemed "enemy vessels" and halted by its navy by whatever means were necessary. Hizballah shot back with a threat of violent retaliation, while Israel's northern commander warned that the IDF was prepared to deal with threats from Lebanon by "appropriate means."
With two ships, one Lebanese and one Iranian, already at sea, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was reported by debkafile's intelligence sources as coupling his public support for the sea campaign to break Israel's blockade of Gaza with a quiet bid to stall it.
He privately asked Cypriot President Demetris Christofias, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and the Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi to deny Lebanese ships bound for Gaza permission to drop anchor, refuel or load provisions at their ports, in order to prevent them from proceeding to Gaza.
Hariri explained that he feared the flotilla campaign to break the Israeli blockade would precipitate a new Middle East war.
Last week, the freighter "Julia," docked at the North Lebanese port of Tripoli was denied permission to head to Gaza Port. Refusing to be put off, the activists decided to sail first to Cyprus and then head for Gaza. Permission was granted by the Lebanese Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi Wednesday, June 23.
On Thursday, June 24, Israel repeated its warning that ships trying to breach its blockade against the Gaza Strip would be deemed "enemy vessels." The Israeli Navy has been instructed to employ every available means to bar their access to Gaza's shore. Israel OC Northern Command Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said: "The Lebanese side is issuing threats against Israel and we are confident that the Israeli army is preparing to confront these threats in an appropriate manner."
He was referring to Hizballah's announcement: "We will not stand by idly if Israel attacks ships bound for Gaza. Detainees taken into Israeli custody (aboard those vessels) will be deemed prisoners of war who must be released.
As the climate over the Mediterranean heats up, two ships are either at sea or hours away from embarkation – the Julia from Lebanon and an Iranian ship, which is said to be making for the Suez Canal from the Persian Gulf port of Khorramshahr.
In his calls to the Greek, Turkish, Cypriot and Maltese leaders, the Lebanese prime minister admitted that the embarkation of the pro-Palestinian vessels from his ports violates US Resolution 1701 enforcing the Israel-Lebanon ceasefire which ended the 2006 war, but he was helpless to stop them because they were backed by powerful elements. Hariri did not say who they were, but they were understood to be Syria and Hizballah.
He stressed that more urgent issues confronted Beirut than the Gaza blockade, such as the Shaaba Farms on the Hermon slopes, which he said, "Hizballah only talks about liberating but has not fired a single shell." Hariri made it clear that by sponsoring the ships for Gaza, Hizballah is bringing Lebanon dangerously close to a clash with Israel.
Unlike the May 31 episode, when the activists who resisted Israel's raid of a Turkish ship to prevent if from reaching Gaza were unknown quantities, this time, on Thursday, Israeli intelligence sources released the identities of the ships' owners and the organizations mounting the expeditions.
The Lebanese "Julia" belongs to a Syrian shipping firm headed by a cousin of President Bashar Assad, who made it available to Hizballah for the challenge to Israel. The Lebanese flotilla effort is funded by a Palestinian by the name of Yasser Kashlak who, posing as a wealthy businessman, serves as Tehran's secret channel for remitting funds to Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist organizations, including Hamas.
Therefore, Israel's designation of these ships and those of Iran as enemy vessels meets the case.
From Washington, debkafile reports that when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 22, he voiced extreme concern about the Lebanese Prime Minister's inability to rein in Hizballah. Because of this, the situation in the region could rapidly deteriorate, said Barak.
Right after the meeting, the US issued a statement about the "aid" flotillas saying, "Direct delivery by sea is neither appropriate nor responsible, and certainly not effective, under the circumstances. There is no need for unnecessary confrontations, and we, along with our partners in the Quartet, call on all parties to act responsibly in meeting the needs of the people of Gaza."