TEL AVIV (Jun. 23)
Stepped-up efforts to enforce the international blockade of Iraq threaten to shut down Eilat’s port, Israeli officials are complaining.
Inspectors from the allied forces have lately been stopping ships entering the Gulf of Eilat, to prevent the supply of goods to Iraq via the Jordanian port of Aqaba, located a dozen miles across the gulf from Eilat.
Cargo ships seeking to avoid the delays have stopped using the port of Eilat, reaching Israel instead via the Suez Canal and one of the country’s Mediterranean ports.
Not one cargo ship has arrived at Eilat during the past month, and the port is now in danger of being closed down due to lack of use.
In an incident Wednesday, an Israeli container ship bound for Eilat was actually prevented from entering the gulf by American and French helicopters and ships taking part in the United Nations-backed blockade.
At the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, Aqaba was the main transit point where goods destined for Iraq were off-loaded and transported by road across Jordan to the Iraqi border.
In order to cut off this supply route, allied forces instituted sea searches at the southern approach to the gulf, where vessels from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean turn northward.
But Israeli officials have protested that it is foolish for the allied forces to search Israeli-bound ships since it is inconceivable that goods would be unloaded in Eilat and trucked across land to Iraq, an archenemy of Israel that fired missiles against Tel Aviv during the Gulf War.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Yaacobi, sent a letter this week to his U.S. counterpart, Madeleine Albright, protesting the blockade’s search policies.
“The inspections have created lengthy delays which have caused excessive losses to the Israeli shipping company Zim and have effectively served to choke off the port of Eilat,” Yaacobi wrote.
“It should be noted that the functioning of the port of Eilat is a national interest of the State of Israel,” he continued.
NO CONTRABAND EVER FOUND
The ship turned back Wednesday was the Zim Tokyo container vessel.
According to Matti Morgenstern, managing director of the Zim line, the ship’s master informed him that he had been halted by U.N. helicopters hovering above his vessel.
After a close aerial investigation, the ship master was asked if he was bound for Eilat. When he answered in the affirmative, the ship was ordered to turn around and proceed via the Suez Canal to a Mediterranean port.
The company decided to direct the vessel to Israel’s Ashdod port via the Suez Canal.
The problem was that the ship’s cargo of containers was stacked more than three tiers high, making it difficult for U.N. inspectors to carry out their check. But shipowners say that stacking less than three containers makes the voyage uneconomical.
Morgenstern said that some 200 vessels have been halted and turned back in recent months.
Israel has suggested that a list of Zim ships be drawn up in advance and be exempted from the inspections, but that proposal has so far been rejected.
Israel has proposed alternatively that allied inspectors board the vessels at the entrance to the gulf and complete their inspections during the trip to Eilat, to save time.
Inspectors could even be based in Eilat to inspect the cargoes upon their arrival. But these suggestions have been rejected too.
No contraband goods have ever been found aboard Eilat-bound vessels, but the searches go on anyway.
As a result of the delays and orders to turn back, it is proving cheaper and faster to continue sailing on to Israel via the Suez Canal.