Ships set to break Gaza ‘siege’
International activists plan to challenge the Israeli navy's blockade of Gaza next week by sailing there from Cyprus.
Their aim is to focus global attention on the strictures being maintained by Israel on movement of people and goods to the coastal enclave.
About 40 people, speaking 12 languages and coming from more than 20 countries, will be on board the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty, which are scheduled to depart from Limassol, Cyprus on August 5, according to organisers.
The name Liberty was chosen in part as a reference to the USS Liberty, which was sunk in the Mediterranean by Israeli warplanes during the 1967 Six-Day war.
Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Coalition against Home Demolitions, will be the only Israeli participant. Other Israelis - including members of the Gush Shalom peace group - refused the organisers' requirement that they endorse the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to former homes inside Israel, according to Paul Larudee, an American founder of the Free Gaza Movement, which is behind the protest.
"Since we go by boat we are not going through the territory of any other country, just international waters. According to Israel, Gaza is no longer occupied, so there shouldn't be a problem," Mr Larudee said. "We are not seeking confrontation. The best thing that could happen is they agree there is no reason to stop us. We are perfectly harmless and if there is any conflict there is no reason for them to harm us either."
In 1988, Israeli intelligence foiled an effort by the PLO to sail a boat from Cyprus to Israel bearing refugees and journalists as a symbol of solidarity with the intifada and the right of return. A hole was blown in the boat hours before its departure.
The sweeping Israeli strictures, termed a "siege" by the protesters, have deepened poverty and unemployment in Gaza and increased dependence on international aid.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel declined to comment on the planned protest. But he added: "There is no siege. There is a terrorist organisation, Hamas, that took over Gaza in a coup d'etat. Hamas is the source of all the problems in Gaza. Israel is the only country that provides goods and fuels."
Mr Halper said of the protest: "It is not a one-shot deal. If we get through we will start a service to bring food and fuel and open up a whole channel."