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First Israeli-flag Vessel Navigates the Suez Canal

The freighter Ashdod, owned by the Zim Lines, made history today. She became the first Israel-flag vessel ever to navigate the Suez Canal, thus formally ending Egypt’s ban on Israeli shipping that began when the Jewish State was founded 31 years ago.

The Ashdod, commanded by Capt. Karal Mendelowitz, carrying a 22-man Israeli crew, entered the 103-mile long waterway at 6 a.m. local time, part of a 32-ship international convoy bound north from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. She arrived at Port Said this evening and is expected to dock at her home port, Haifa tomorrow morning.

The passage through the canal was both routine and exceptional. There were no special ceremonies to mark the occasion. But from the moment the gray-hulled Israeli motorship approached Port Tewfik at the southern entrance of the waterway, sounding her horn in greeting, there were spontaneous outpourings of warmth from Egyptians on the shore. The Suez Canal Authority provided an escort of patrol boats through the canal as a security measure but also a sort of honor guard.

The escort and the blue-and-white Star of David flag flying from her mast alongside the Egyptian colors distinguished the Israeli ship from the rest of the convoy of cargo carriers and tankers flying the flags of Britain, France, Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union.

Traversing the length of the canal occupies a full day, as ships must proceed slowly through the narrow, brackish waters. As the Ashdod passed villages and townships, thousands of Egyptians lined the banks, waving, applauding and shouting “Salaam,” “Shalom.” At Port Said, as many Egyptians as could crowd her decks clambered aboard the Israeli ship to drink champagne toasts with Capt. Mendelowitz and the Egyptian canal pilot, Capt. Mohammed Nur Mackawi.

‘IN THE NAME OF PEACE’

The Ashdod rode high on the water for she carried only ballast. Her containerized cargo, mainly from South Africa, had been discharged a week ago at Eilat. Zim had intended to sail her directly through the canal which was officially opened to Israeli vessels under the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signed on March 26. But the canal authorities refused to grant her clearance, apparently for inter-Arab political reasons and the fact she was carrying good from South Africa, a country boycotted by Egypt for its apartheid policies.

But with the ship emptied and the Israeli-Egyptian treaty formally put into effect last Wednesday, all barriers were removed. When Capt. Mendelowitz contacted the canal authorities at Alexandria yesterday, he received warm and enthusiastic messages welcoming the ship and her crew to Egyptian territorial waters “in the name of peace.”

The Ashdod paid a $10,000 fee for passage through the canal. The money was forwarded in advance by the Zim Lines through a Greek shipping agency in Port Said. The fee is based on net tonnage a measurement calculated on the basis of revenue earning space aboard ship. One net ton equal 100 cubic feet. In the case of the Ashdod, this worked out to 4500 net tons.

Only one other Israeli vessel ever approached the Suez Canal. In 1954, the freighter Bat Galim at tempted to make a test case for Israel’s right to passage which was supposedly guaranteed by international low. She was seized at Port Said and her crew was arrested. They were released several months later.

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