Activists Break Blockade of Gaza

Palestinians greet two boats carrying 46 rights activists from 17 countries. The boats left Cyprus on Friday.
Palestinians greet two boats carrying 46 rights activists from 17 countries. The boats left Cyprus on Friday. (Photo: Hatem Moussa/AP)
By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 24, 2008

JERUSALEM, Aug. 23 -- Two wooden boats carrying dozens of human rights activists reached the Gaza Strip on Saturday afternoon after the Israeli navy decided not to hinder the challenge to Israel's blockade of the Palestinian enclave. Thousands of Palestinians turned out to welcome the group, which brought token humanitarian aid, including hearing aids and balloons.

"It was really amazing -- there were kids swimming out to see us and boats sailing out to meet us," said Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the only Israeli Jew on board. "It took us a day and a half to get here, and most of the activists got seasick, but the people here were so happy when we arrived."

Halper, speaking by phone from Gaza, said the U.S.-based Free Gaza movement had worked for two years to arrange and finance the voyage.

He said he was surprised that the Israeli navy did not interfere with the boats, which left Cyprus on Friday. On board were 46 activists from 17 countries, including an 81-year-old Catholic nun and former British prime minister Tony Blair's sister-in-law, Lauren Booth. Blair is currently the envoy for the Quartet, a group of Middle East peace mediators comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Israel continues to control the territorial waters off Gaza and has sharply limited the amount of goods allowed into the strip since the Islamist Hamas movement, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group, seized power there last year. Israeli officials say that they have allowed food and medicine into the territory but that they hope to encourage residents to overthrow Hamas. Since June 19, Israel and Hamas have observed a cease-fire, although about 40 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said Israel had decided not to stop the boats from landing in Gaza to diminish media attention.

"We took away the drama," Mekel said. "They came, they were welcomed, but what will they do tomorrow? They were hoping for a long confrontation with Israel -- now they won't have it."

Mekel said that the decision did not set a precedent and that future cases will be examined on their merits. But Halper said he believed the Free Gaza movement had in fact broken the siege of Gaza.

"Now that we've come through, what's the excuse to keep the third boat out or the 10th boat or the 100th? We did break the economic siege of Gaza," he said.

Halper said at least one of the boats will sail back to Cyprus in the next few days, adding that activists hope to take with them Palestinian students who have permission to study in U.S. universities but were unable to obtain exit permits from Israel. It is Halper's first visit to Gaza since the summer of 2000, before the beginning of the second Israeli-Palestinian intifada. It is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Gaza or the West Bank without permission, and he said he is likely to be arrested when he returns to Israel.

Activists on the boat had earlier complained that Israel was jamming the boat's electronic equipment, an assertion Mekel called "a complete lie." Palestinian journalists who set out to meet the boats said they were forced to turn back after the Israeli navy fired warning shots at them. An Israeli army spokeswoman said no shots were fired at the boats.

Halper said that the Palestinians had asked for 9,000 hearing aids but that the group had the money to purchase 200. He said the frequent sonic booms of Israeli aircraft over Gaza had damaged the hearing of many Gazan children.

The Free Gaza activists said they hoped Saturday's landing would improve the situation of the Strip's 1.4 million Palestinians.

"We recognize that we're two humble boats, but what we've accomplished is to show that average people from around the world can mobilize to create change," said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American. "We do not have to stay silent in the face of injustice. Reaching Gaza today, there is such a sense of hope, and hope is what mobilizes people everywhere."

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