Palestinians: Aid boat en route from Libya to Gaza

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- A boat loaded with humanitarian aid has left Libya and will try to reach Gaza despite an Israeli naval blockade, a Palestinian lawmaker in Gaza said Wednesday, raising the possibility of a confrontation between an Arab vessel and Israeli sailors.

Independent legislator Jamal Khoudary said the ship left the Libyan port of Zawara carrying 3,000 tons of food, medicine, blankets and powdered milk. He said it would arrive in Gaza early next week.

Libyan officials declined comment, but witnesses saw the al-Marwa leave the port Tuesday evening.

The Libyan boat follows three other vessels that have sailed to Gaza from Cyprus since August to break the Israeli blockade, which was imposed last year to put pressure on the territory's Hamas government.

The earlier boats, organized by the private U.S.-based Free Gaza advocacy group, carried international activists and some aid supplies. Israel's navy let them through, saying it wanted to deny the protesters the publicity they would gain from a confrontation.

The Libyan vessel, however, presents a far bigger test. It would be the first significant shipment of goods to reach Gaza. It also is the first time a country, and an Arab one at that, has sought to defy the blockade.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor would not say how Israel would deal with the Libyan boat, saying only that each case is considered separately. The Israeli military declined to comment.

Shlomo Brom, a strategic expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said Israel should consider letting the Libyan boat through, noting the North African nation has taken a pro-Western tilt in recent years. But he said the cargo should be checked.

"It depends what's on board. If there is something that can pose a threat, then Israel should stop it, but if not there is no good reason to do so," Brom said.

Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas, an Islamic group hostile to Israel, violently seized power in Gaza in June 2007. The closure was tightened in response to rocket barrages by Palestinian militants into Israel. Egypt has also kept its crossing with Gaza shut.

The sanctions were loosened somewhat after the sides reached a truce last June, but Gaza has been sealed since violence erupted again early this month. Israel says the crossings will be reopened when militants halt the rocket fire.

The closure has greatly limited to arrival of goods into Gaza, and the area is suffering from a shortage of fuel and basic items.

About 10 trucks carrying supplies entered Gaza on Wednesday.

Mahmoud Khazundar, chairman of a gas station association in Gaza, said Israel allowed cooking gas in for the first time since early November. He said 70 tons was expected and would be given to bakeries, about a dozen of which have shut down since the shortages began.

The United Nations and aid groups appealed Wednesday for $462 million in emergency aid to address what they called a humanitarian crisis in Palestinian territories. Most of the money would be used for food and cash handouts, U.N. officials said.

On another issue, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said a group of Jewish settlers would be forced out of a disputed house in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron if they continued to refuse to leave on their own.

Settlers moved in to the house last year after claiming they bought it from a Palestinian. The Palestinian denied selling it, and Israel's Supreme Court ordered the house evacuated last week.

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