Activists try to break through Israel's blockade of Gaza

Derek Graham, a member of the Free Gaza Movement, makes last-minute preparations aboard the 66-foot yacht, Dignity, for the group's plans to bring a shipment of cancer medicine from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Gaza.
Derek Graham, a member of the Free Gaza Movement, makes last-minute preparations aboard the 66-foot yacht, Dignity, for the group's plans to bring a shipment of cancer medicine from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Gaza. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

LARNACA, Cyprus — International activists and sympathetic nations are challenging Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, now ruled by the militant Islamic group Hamas, by sending aid ships to replenish supplies that used to come through Israel.

As more ships prepare to test Israel's blockade, the campaign poses a quandary for Israeli leaders.

"This has now become a phenomenon," said Hirsch Goodman, a senior research fellow at Israel's non-partisan Institute for National Security Studies.

The next big test will come this weekend, when a charitable delegation from Qatar plans to escort cancer medication valued at $2 million on a boat from Cyprus to Gaza.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Arab-Israeli activists also have announced plans to send aid ships to Gaza. More are expected to follow.

"We're not turning back," said Ramzi Kysia, a Washington activist who helped found the Free Gaza Movement that is sending the boat this weekend. "Israel is going to have decide for itself how badly it wants to starve the people of Gaza."

Kysia and the other activists are looking beyond symbolism: They want to open a regular shipping lane to Gaza.

For decades, the Mediterranean Sea has shimmered as a tantalizing but elusive escape for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Jewish settlements along the Gaza coast prevented many young Palestinians from going to the beach until the Israeli government razed the homes in 2005. Israel won't allow the Palestinians to build a deepwater port. And the Israeli Navy routinely prevents Palestinian fisherman from heading out more than three miles from the shore.

During the past two years, as Hamas tightened its control of Gaza, and Palestinian militants fired increasingly-deadly rockets into southern Israel, Israel gradually choked off the flow of food, medical aid and other supplies that used to come through Israel.

Israel weathered international condemnation of the blockade, but its high court ruled in January that cutting off aid and fuel was a legitimate response to the ongoing rocket attacks.

After an Israeli military operation in early November sparked new rocket fire from Gaza, Israel again severed the aid flow. Israel also cut all access to the foreign media — an action it lifted Thursday following protests by reporters and their news organizations.

The activists responded with new attempts to establish a sea lane to Gaza. Kysia and an unlikely group of activists made the nascent campaign possible by collecting money over two years to buy two battered, wooden fishing boats. In August, the Free Gaza Movement ignored threats from the Israeli Navy to stop the boats and set sail for Gaza with a high-profile delegation, including the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

As the activists' boats neared Gaza, the Israeli Navy backed down and allowed the ships to pass.

In late October, the newest Free Gaza boat carried another delegation, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mairead McGuire and Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian Authority lawmaker. A third delegation set out in early November. Both times, Israel opted to avoid a confrontation at sea."

"When we saw that there was no harm in a small yacht with a few European citizens and activists that was on its way from Cyprus, the prime minister decided to let them in," said Andy David, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "It did not look like there was an imminent and immediate threat from that yacht."

That decision emboldened others to challenge the Israeli policy.

Last week, the Israeli Navy turned back a freighter from Libya that was trying to bring aid to Gaza.

"It's a fashion now, a new media spin, but we're not going to play this game," said David, who left open the possibility that this weekend's boat might be allowed into Gaza.

Israel is trying to blunt the criticism by pointing a finger at Egypt, which is working in conjunction with Israel to keep its own narrow border with Gaza closed.

"We are not responsible for the Egyptian policies," David said. "If people want to send in aid, they can go through Egypt."

The Egyptian border with Gaza isn't well equipped to handle supplies. It's now the site of an increasingly sophisticated set of smugglers' tunnels under the border that are used to ferry everything from guns and gasoline to goats and medicine.

Free Gaza activists and the delegation from Qatar began gathering in Cyprus this week to prepare for the next boat trip aboard the 66-foot yacht named "Dignity."

"We've set an international precedent," said Free Gaza organizer Osama Qashoo. "They didn't imagine that other would follow — and this is the real challenge."

(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this article.)


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