LARNACA, Cyprus - Israel is taking unusual new steps to discourage Arab and Muslim nations from challenging its prolonged economic siege of the Hamas-led Gaza Strip by sending aid ships to ease the desperate circumstances of the 1.5 million Gaza Palestinians.
In recent days, Israel prodded Qatar, a friendly Persian Gulf nation, into calling off a delegation preparing to transport aid from Cyprus to Gaza, according to officials briefed on what they said were high-level talks.
Hours before a Qatar aid group was scheduled to board a boat Saturday with $2 million in cancer medication, they abruptly pulled out of the trip.
The Qatar Charity would have been the first such Arab aid group to challenge Israel's ban on international boats traveling to Gaza.
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Instead, Israel urged Qatar officials to send any Gaza-bound aid via Israel, Israeli government officials said.
"The message was delivered, not only to them, but to anybody else that wanted to transfer aid to Gaza, that there is a mechanism on how to do it," said Andy David, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "We will not change our policy, which gives us the option on how to do it, while not allowing unauthorized boats to reach Gaza."
Last week, according to Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the Qatar government asked Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for permission to send aid to Gaza.
The government quickly rejected the request.
"We have no intention of setting up a shipping line to Gaza," a source in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office told Yedioth Ahronoth. "Israel's policy is to maintain the siege placed on Hamas government in Gaza, and there is no reason to give in to provocations."
But Palestinian supporters have been looking for alternate routes to get aid to Gaza because Israel is letting in drastically reduced amounts of aid.
Among Arab nations, Qatar has a relatively open relationship with Israel. The two countries established trade relations in 1996 and Israel maintains a small trade office in Doha.
Earlier this year, Livni made a rare visit to Qatar to attend a pro-democracy forum. Her attendance prompted a boycott by some Arab participants.
Qatar was not the only recipient of Israel's get-tough message.
On Sunday, Israeli authorities thwarted a group of Arab-Israeli leaders and activists making their latest attempt to challenge the Gaza restrictions.
The delegation planned to send a small aid boat to Gaza from Israel's Jaffa port. Israeli police arrested three people bringing aid to the boat and warned the Israeli boat owner that he would be breaking the law if he went to Gaza.
Last week, the Israeli Navy turned away a Libyan ship carrying 3,000 tons of aid - which would have been biggest outside supply shipment to reach Gaza.
Other groups and nations are still making plans to challenge Israeli policies.
On Tuesday, the Free Gaza Movement is planning to send its fourth boat from Cyprus to Gaza. The group had planned to transport the Qatar delegation on its 66-foot yacht, but now expects to carry a smaller aid cargo, along with a delegation of humanitarian workers, human rights activists, and academics.
Israeli officials said they let Free Gaza boats in because they posed no security threat and they did not want to create an unnecessary international incident.
Israeli officials say they will allow supplies to enter Gaza if-and-when Hamas once again prevents Palestinian militants from firing rockets and mortars into southern Israel.
The sea route gained attention last month when Israel began blocking all-but-essential humanitarian aid from going into Gaza. The restrictions are part of Israel's attempt to undermine Hamas, the hard-line Islamist group that seized military control of Gaza in June, 2007 by routing Palestinian Authority forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel also barred international diplomats and journalists from entering Gaza, an unofficial policy currently being challenged in Israel's highest court by the Foreign Press Association, of which McClatchy Newspapers is a part. Israel lifted the ban for one day last week and then reimposed it.
Since early November, little aid has reached Gaza, which is facing shortages of everything from fuel to milk.
Following on the success of the Free Gaza boats, groups from Turkey and Jordan are also reportedly planning to send ships with aid to Gaza.
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