Israel is to allow a pro-Palestinian activist group to sail two boats carrying humanitarian supplies into the Gaza Strip, after earlier hinting it would block the shipment from reaching the coastal territory.
The boats, with 46 activists on board – including Lauren Booth, half-sister of Middle East envoy Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie – were expected to reach Gaza later tonight, defying Israel’s yearlong blockade of the territory.
The delivery had been in question since the activists with the US-based Free Gaza Movement departed Cyprus yesterday. Israeli officials initially deemed the mission an unacceptable provocation, and the crew on the boats today accused Israel of sabotaging their communications equipment and complained of rough seas.
But this afternoon Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel had decided to let the boats into Gaza “to avoid the media provocation in the high seas as they (the organisers) planned”.
He said Israeli authorities were satisfied the cargo was harmless. He had no information on whether Israel had harmed the boats’ communications.
The boats are carrying symbolic humanitarian aid – a shipment of hearing aids and thousands of balloons.
Israel has led an international boycott of Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power of the territory in June 2007. The Jewish state closed its trade crossings with the territory, while neighbouring Egypt sealed its passenger crossing, confining Gaza’s 1.4 million residents.
Israel has allowed little more than basic humanitarian supplies into Gaza, causing widespread shortages of fuel, electricity and basic goods. Only a trickle of people are allowed to leave Gaza for medical care, jobs abroad and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
If the activists reach Gaza, it would be the first time foreign activists have broken the blockade. However, it remained unclear how the foreigners will leave the territory. Israel controls all movement to and from the coastal strip.
In Gaza City’s small fishing port, activists, reporters and a music band from a local scout group loaded onto a dozen small boats heading off to greet the vessels.
Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh welcomed the activists. “We call for more activities to break the unfair siege imposed on our people,” Haniyeh said.
The 70ft Free Gaza and 60ft Liberty left Cyprus yesterday for the estimated 30-hour trip in a bid to break Israel’s 14-month Gaza blockade. The 46 activists from 14 countries include an 81-year-old Catholic nun and the sister-in-law of Mideast envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“Nobody thinks that these boats will break the siege in a practical way, but this is a moral message – what is happening (in Gaza) is illegal and inhumane, and must be halted,” said Raji Sourani, a prominent human rights activist.
Under a June truce deal which halted a deadly cycle of bruising Palestinian rocket attacks and deadly Israel airstrikes, Israel has pledged to ease the blockade, but Palestinians say the flow of goods into Gaza remains insufficient and there has been little improvement in the quality of life.
Israel has periodically closed the cargo crossings in response to sporadic Palestinian rocket fire that violated the truce.
In January, Palestinian gunmen knocked down its southern border wall, prompting thousands of Gazans to rush into Egypt. Two weeks later, the border was resealed.