23 January 2009
(written 16 January 2009)

English translation by

A Freighter Can't Unload Its Freight of US munitions to Israel

by Otfried Nassauer (Translated by Agatha Haun, Tlaxcala)

A German container ship wanted to bring US munitions to Israel, but the war in the Gaza Strip got in the way.

The task seemed dead certain and in addition, it was lucrative. On 6 December 2008 the Hamburg shipping company Oskar Wehr KG won an invitation for tenders issued by the US navy's sea transport command. For $635,900 the Hamburg company was supposed to take 989 containers of munitions from Sunny Point, North Carolina, USA, to the Mediterranean.

On 20 December the "Wehr Elbe", a 208-metre long full container ship with its own loading cranes, picked up the explosive cargo on the east coast of the US. At the beginning of January, the ship reached the waters near the western Greek port of Astakos. Since then the "Wehr Elbe" has been a problem case. It was unable to rid itself of the munitions containers.

The US navy had chartered the ship in order to transport the tremendous quantity of munitions to Israel. The destination of the containers was the port of Ashdod. It lies halfway between Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip. The US armed forces wanted to refill their munitions depots in Israel with these munitions. Israel also can have recourse to these in an emergency, if Washington has approved of it in advance. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell confirmed that on Tuesday. He said that he didn't know whether Israel had made use of that opportunity in recent months.

The Pentagon remains taciturn

The Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip began a few days before the arrival of the "Wehr Elbe" in Astakos. Greece refused to allow the unloading of the cargo of munitions, in order for it to be reloaded onto smaller vessels before being shipped on to Israel. The sea transport command withdrew two invitations for tenders for smaller shipments of munitions from Astakos to Ashdod.

Almost two weeks later, on 12 January, the "Wehr Elbe" left Greek waters without having accomplished anything, and with an unknown destination. Since then the ship has turned off its transponder. Its present location can therefore no longer be followed.

The Pentagon also, which initially was so forthcoming with information, became reticent: Alternative ways were being sought in order to bring the munitions to Israel. They had not yet been found. From now on the European office of the maritime transport command in Naples was responsible.

There were also reasons for the increased reluctance to impart information. Amnesty International had found out about the shipping of the munitions and reported that in the documents related to the call for tenders, there was also mention of shells with white phosphorous.

This type of munition is extremely controversial. Many people consider ist use to be a violation of international law. Israel has been accused of using it in the Gaza Strip. With its publcation, on the other hand, Amnesty emphasized its demand for a complete weapons embargo against all warring parties in the Gaza conflict.

The Hamburg shipping company markets its transport services in the Internet under the apt address www.wehrtransport.de.

(Translator's note: in German, the word "Wehr" denotes military, defence, weapons, etc., thus "wehrtransport" could be taken to mean (here unintentionally) "shipping of weapons".)


is a freelance journalist and director of the Berlin Information Centre for Transatlantic Security / Berliner Informationszentrum for Transatlantische Sicherheit - BITS