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Gaza aid ship awaits repairs two weeks after Israelis rammed it.

Byline: Nicholas Kimbrell

Summary: An aid ship rammed nearly two weeks ago by an Israeli gunboat while trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip has yet be properly examined or undergo initial repairs, according to its captain, despite having been docked in Lebanon since the New Year.

BEIRUT: An aid ship rammed nearly two weeks ago by an Israeli gunboat while trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip has yet be properly examined or undergo initial repairs, according to its captain, despite having been docked in Lebanon since the New Year.

"We're having a lot of problems just getting someone to do an inspection report," Denis Healey, the Larnaca-based English captain, told The Daily Star .

The SS Dignity, a boat belonging to the Free Gaza Movement, was rammed by an Israeli gunboat 144 kilometers off the Gazan coast and 85 kilometers from Israel on December 30, Healey said.

After the collision, which has been acknowledged by the Israeli government, the damaged boat, carrying medical professionals, medical supplies and activists, limped into the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre, where it was welcomed by cheering locals and Lebanese officials.

However, since the Dignity's arrival in Lebanon very little has been done to fix the boat or even raise money for repairs - a job that could take up to six months and cost upward of $130,000, according to Healey.

Healey said that initially enthusiasm for covering or contributing to the costs of repairs was high. Indeed, during his first night in Beirut there was a lot of interest in helping to fix the boat, he said.

But when asked, 10 days later, whether that interest was still there, Healey was less certain. "I'm not sure," he said. "No one has put any money down."

Now the Dignity, which was further damaged by a storm during its first night in Tyre's port, is still in the water and Healey is questioning whether to take the damaged vessel back to Cyprus or to leave it in Lebanon for repairs.

For its part the Free Gaza Movement, made up of peace activists devoted to ending the Israeli siege - and now onslaught - of Gaza, has bought a new boat with which to try to enter the beleaguered Palestinian territory.

The Free Gaza Movement has made a series of trips to Gaza this winter and fall, and Healey has captained four of them. His most recent, aboard the Dignity, was the first time one of the group's boats was not allowed through to Gaza.

Healey retold the story of the Dignity's interrupted voyage calmly. He began by making it clear that he is a captain "not an activist."

The Dignity left for Gaza at 7 p.m. on December 29, Healey said. At about five in the morning and under 160 kilometers from Gaza, well within international waters, two Israeli gunboats appeared shining powerful searchlights.

Half an hour later a third Israeli vessel came from ahead and struck the Dignity on its port bow, Healey said. There was noticeable damage and the boat began to take on water.

Healey, however, denied press reports that shots were fired or that there had been any radio contact between the Israeli gunboats and his ship prior to the hit. But he added that, "after the collision, they radioed 'Dignity turn around, back to Cyprus' so they knew exactly who we were."

"It wasn't an accident," he said. "It was blatantly ..." and trailed off.

The boat headed for Tyre, where it arrived at 1 or 2 p.m., according to the captain, and was met by a number of Lebanese, dozens of whom jumped on the boat.

During the hours-long trip to Tyre, with much of the windscreen gone and heavy swells, Healey regularly got electric shocks while steering.

And he is concerned the next Free Gaza voyage could face a similar or worse encounter.

The new boat, which could leave as early as Monday, is a pleasure craft, recently purchased in Crete, that has been fitted with GPS and radar for the day-long journey from Cyprus to Gaza.

Healey thinks sending another boat during Israel's continued bombardment of and incursion into Gaza could prove unwise. "At the least, the [Israelis] will stop the boat," he said, adding that they could well confiscate it.

As for the Dignity, Healey is unsure about what will happen. "It's about the money and getting it [the repair process] started," he said. Whether that will be in Lebanon or Cyprus remains to be seen.

But regardless of the Dignity's difficulties, interest in traveling to Gaza is at a high, Healey noted. "There are so many people who want to get there that we could run ferries," he said.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Jan 12, 2009
Words:804
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