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Protest boats defy Israeli blockade, land in Gaza

Despite rough seas and communications troubles on this trip, activists plan more voyages from Cyprus.

August 24, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The two boats, named Free Gaza and Liberty, chugged into Gaza City on Saturday with quite an escort: a flotilla of fishing boats, sailboats, skiffs and even a swimmer carrying a Palestinian flag.

Arriving to a boisterous reception, the international activists aboard the boats said they hoped their symbolic breaking of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip was just the beginning.

"We will surely try to bring the boats back again," said Huwaida Arraf, one of 44 passengers who contended with rough seas and communications problems after setting out Friday from Cyprus. "The goal is to open a route between Cyprus and Gaza.

"People here are just ecstatic to see that someone cares."

Israel, with U.S. backing and Egyptian assistance, virtually sealed Gaza last summer after the militant Islamic group Hamas seized control of the strip. Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, has kept Gaza running on a small amount of humanitarian aid allowed in by Israel and a steady flow of goods smuggled through tunnels from Egypt.

Saturday's landing was an attempt to alter that equation. Among the activists who made the trip were an 81-year-old American nun and the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a Middle East peace envoy.

The two boats ran into trouble almost as soon as they left Cyprus. The navigation and communications systems on both failed, and some activists accused Israel of jamming them. Israel denied the allegation.

But the activists' biggest concern never materialized: a confrontation with the Israeli navy, which patrols the Gaza shores.

Israel's Foreign Ministry had requested that the activists deliver their load of hearing aids through Israeli-controlled checkpoints. Refusal to do so, according to a ministry letter, "proves that your goal is political and constitutes the legitimization of a terrorist organization."

But Israeli officials announced Saturday that they would allow the boats to land unhindered.

"We knew they were looking for a media provocation on the high seas," said Arye Mekel, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. "So we decided not to let them have the confrontation they wanted."

Organizers plan to sail back to Cyprus in a few days. But they'll be leaving something behind: Several activists plan to stay for a few months, volunteering with local nongovernmental organizations.

The boats will return to their new home port in Cyprus. Organizers plan more trips and hope to rally support for other international activists to follow suit.

But Mekel warned that future attempts might get a different reception.

"I don't know if others will want to do this," he said, "but this is not a precedent for future."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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