The Israel-linked cargo ship Cornelius A appears to have gone into hiding while en route to Radès.
But a government spokesperson has confirmed that the ship is still expected in the Tunisian port.
The spokesperson stated that the ship would undergo a special inspection to ensure that it is complying with Tunisia’s official boycott of Israel.
According to the tracking website Vessel Finder, Cornelius A last reported its position at around 0100 UTC early Wednesday, when it was about 40 nautical miles north of the Algerian port of Jijel.
Activists and trade union leaders in Tunisia believe that the vessel’s transponder – the device that transmits its position – was turned off to allow it to enter Tunisian waters undetected despite calls for it to be barred from entry because it was chartered by the Israeli shipping company Zim.
“Cornelius A is no longer being tracked by maritime sites and was ordered not to transmit its heading after leaving a Spanish port,” UGTT, Tunisia’s main trade union federation, alleged on Wednesday.
This is a decision that “cannot be taken by the ship alone without collusion,” UGTT said, without stating who it believes is responsible.
Adding that such actions were in the “tradition of international piracy,” UGTT stated that the Cornelius A “no doubt wants to enter Tunisian ports without being noticed.”
On Monday, UGTT called on its member unions and port workers to refuse to handle the ship if it lands at Ràdes.
This followed a call by Palestinian trade union federations on their Tunisian counterparts to mobilize all efforts to stop the Cornelius A being unloaded in Radès and to prevent normalization of ties with Israel more generally.
Cornelius A is owned by the Turkish company Arkas, but operates services to Tunisia on behalf of Israel’s Zim, via Spanish ports. Amid an outcry from activists in Tunisia, Zim removed all references to the ship from its website in recent days.
UGTT has demanded a parliamentary inquiry and other measures to combat covert normalization with Israel, which is strongly opposed in Tunisian society.
This week TACBI, a Tunisian group supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, wrote to the Tunisian branch of Arkas to demand that the shipping firm cease trading with Israel and with Zim, citing Israel’s ongoing occupation and colonization and other violations of Palestinian rights.
“We hope that you will take account of our letter and put your business in conformity with Tunisian and international law, and that we will not be obliged to add your company to the list of firms that support or profit from [Israeli] colonization and which are therefore boycottable by the international BDS movement,” TACBI stated.
On Wednesday, the campaign group BDS Egypt sent a similar letter to Arkas’ affiliate in Egypt, as well as to the parent company in Turkey, a copy of which was seen by The Electronic Intifada.
As the Cornelius A neared Radès, Tunisian authorities made their first public response to the calls to block its entry.
Sahbi Azzouz, a spokesperson for OMMP, the Tunisian port authority, told the newspaper La Presse on Wednesday that as far as Tunisian authorities are concerned the Cornelius A is a Turkish ship and nothing can prevent it from landing at Ràdes.
“On the website of the International Maritime Organization, our reference for identifying ships, this vessel is Turkish and that’s all we can see,” Azzouz stated.
Azzouz also said that contrary to claims he attributed to activists, Cornelius A has not directly served Haifa, a port in present-day Israel, since September 2017.
Nonetheless, the port official told La Presse that Tunisian authorities reserved the right to prevent the landing of any ship if the cargo manifest shows that it is carrying goods from Israel destined for Tunisia.
Before the ship lands, Azzouz said that a Tunisian port authority team will carry out an exceptional “port state control” inspection of the Cornelius A to verify its cargo and documents.
“We are of course committed to respecting the Arab League boycott if it turns out that the Cornelius A is transporting Israeli goods,” Azzouz said. “Clearly, there are no economic relations between Tunisia and Israel, and there must be no import or export operations.”
This is not likely to satisfy activists, who believe there are covert trade relations between Israel and Tunisia they suspect have been going on for years.
“We don’t have enough information about this ship and what it has been carrying for three years,” TACBI’s Ahmed Abbes told La Presse. “Only a parliamentary inquiry can cast light on this affair and that is what we are demanding.”
La Presse also uncovered another mystery about the Cornelius A. According to the website Marine Traffic the port agent for the vessel is a company called Medship Tunisia.
But Medship Tunisia’s director Ali Farhat told La Presse that his company has nothing to do with the ship.
Farhat also said that he suspected that for decades Israel has used a covert strategy to trade with Arab ports from which Israeli ships, or third-country ships sailing directly from Israel, are banned.
“The Israeli shipping lines know very well that they are boycotted in Arab ports, so they have signed agreements with the Turks to help them reach Arab ports,” Farhat said.