Amid tensions, Israel tracks aid ship aiming for Gaza


As Israeli troops and Palestinian militants trade threats over the Gaza border, an Asian aid ship docked in Syria has announced plans to sail to the Palestinian territory to break the Israeli sea blockade.

The Jerusalem Post, citing press reports, said that the ship, called Asia 1 and carrying about 160 activists from such countries as India, Jordan, Iran, Indonesia, Lebanon and Pakistan, was awaiting approval from the Egyptian government to sail to the port of El Arish en route to Gaza.

The ship is reportedly carrying $1 million worth of supplies, including a sizable medical donation from the Iranian Red Crescent.

On Monday, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip marked two years since the devastating Israeli  invasion of the coastal enclave. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, said it would plant 1,440 seedlings in northern Gaza, one for every Palestinian the group said was killed during Israel's 22-day invasion launched on Dec. 27, 2008.

The anniversary comes after weeks of mortar shell and rocket fire from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli air strikes.

Both sides have ramped up their rhetoric, warning an escalation in violence could result in a full-blown conflict.

Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, on Monday said that Israel "will not accept" rocket and mortar fire from the Gaza Strip and is ready in the event that tensions further escalate in the area.

"Two years after Operation Cast Lead, the situation in the Gaza Strip is different and calmer. Yet, sadly, from time to time, rockets and mortar shells are fired at the Israeli home front," the Jerusalem Post quoted Ashkenazi as saying. "The IDF holds the Hamas terrorist organization solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip. We hope that the security situation in the south does not deteriorate, however the IDF is preparing for any scenario."

On Sunday, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, one of the militant groups operating in Gaza, said it was prepared for a new war with Israel.

"The occupation will pay the price if they even think of carrying out an escalation in the Gaza Strip," Abu Ahmed told mourners at the funerals of two Islamic Jihad members killed in a Sunday exchange of fire with Israeli troops.

On Saturday, members of Hamas's military wing held a press conference and also announced their readiness for war. "If there is any Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip we will respond strongly," said a masked spokesman who identified himself as Abu Obeideh.

The Asia 1 ship is reportedly the first vessel to set sail from Asia bound for the Gaza Strip.

Israel, which has indicated that it will not allow ships to sail into the Gaza Strip without first boarding and towing them to the Ashdod Port for a cargo inspection, is tracking the ship, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Gaza has been under complete Israel blockade since Hamas took control as its popularly elected government in 2007.

In May, nine Turkish activists aboard a "freedom flotilla" destined for Gaza were killed after Israeli naval commandos took control of the vessels in international waters off the coast of Gaza. The incident severely dented relations between Israel and Turkey, once Israel's strongest ally among Muslim nations.

As the boat boarded by Israeli commandos in the raid arrive in Istanbul over the weekend, Turkey's foreign minister pressed for an apology from Israel over the deaths of its citizens.

Despite that and other overtures from Ankara, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday that his country would not apologize.

"The ones who need to apologize is the Turkish government for supporting terror regarding the IHH [a Turkish charity tied to the flotilla], Hamas and Hezbollah," Liberman told a gathering of Israeli ambassadors from around the world.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that it was in Israel's best interests to reduce tensions with Turkey.