Boats Depart Gaza After Aid Delivery

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 29, 2008

JERUSALEM, Aug. 28 -- Two boats carrying international peace activists left the Gaza Strip on Thursday, five days after they defied an Israeli naval blockade to reach the territory. The activists took seven Palestinians with them, including a 10-year-old boy who lost a leg in an Israeli army attack on Palestinian fighters three years ago.

One of the activists, Paul Larudee, said several Israeli naval vessels shadowed the wooden boats as they left Gaza and sailed toward international waters. Larudee, 63, a piano tuner from California, said the departure of the Palestinians was a milestone: "They got exit stamps from the Palestinian government, they boarded the ships, and soon they'll be in international waters and then in Cyprus. This is the first time, ever, that Palestinians have been able to freely enter and leave their own country."

Thousands of Palestinians went to greet the 44 activists from 17 countries when they landed in Gaza on Saturday. The visitors brought 200 hearing aids for Palestinian children and thousands of balloons.

Among the seven Palestinians who left in the boats were Saad Mesleh and his father, Khaled, who said he hoped to have his son fitted with an artificial leg in Cyprus.

Nine of the activists decided to stay in the strip at least temporarily.

Israeli government spokesman Aryeh Mekel said the activists were hoping to attract widespread media coverage, which would have resulted had Israel stopped the boats.

"They entered and they left," he said. "If these were terrorists, we would care. But the fact is, we allowed it."

Mekel said Israel did not think the voyage would set a precedent. "If anyone expects a regular flow of ships going back and forth, this is not going to happen," he said.

Journalist Ahmed Abu Hamda said the visit was "a small victory for Hamas," the armed Islamist movement that won Palestinian elections in January 2006. Hamas took exclusive control of the territory in June 2007 after clashes with members of the rival Fatah movement. Israel has since severely limited the flow of goods into Gaza, allowing only food and medicine.

A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which went into effect in June, has not ended the blockade. Palestinians say there are shortages of many goods and frequent blackouts because of Israeli limits on the supply of fuel.

"Hamas sent a message to Arab countries who they feel aren't doing anything, saying, 'These Western activists managed to do what you haven't been able to do for two years,' " Abu Hamda said.

The only Jewish Israeli on the boat, Jeff Halper, was arrested Tuesday as he returned to Israel and was charged with violating an Israeli military order that prohibits Israelis from entering Gaza.

He spent a night and a day in jail and was released on bail. Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, said the two boats forced Israel to relinquish at least some control over access to Gaza by sea.

Halper, who last visited the strip in 2000, said Gazans were eager to speak Hebrew with him.

"I would do a telephone interview for the media in Hebrew and, by the end, there would be a dozen Palestinians around me who all wanted to speak to me in Hebrew and tell me about their friends in Tel Aviv," he said. "It really was very moving. They would say, 'We're the same, why is there all this conflict between us?' "

"It's the opposite of what the Israeli public thinks," Halper said. "They think that Gaza is all Hamas and they hate Israelis. But if they knew the truth, they'd have to say that there is a basis for peacemaking here."


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