FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus A group of Jewish activists set sail for the Gaza Strip on Sunday, intent on defying an Israeli blockade and highlighting the suffering of Palestinians who live in the territory. Nine activists from Israel, Britain, Germany and the United States left Famagusta port in northern Cyprus with a small quantity of aid aboard their British-flagged catamaran, "Irene." Uninterrupted, their trip to Gaza would take around 24 hours.
"I want to raise my voice against evil and draw attention to 1.5 million people under siege. This is inhuman," said Rami Elhanan, an Israeli peace activist who lost his 14-year-old daughter Smadar to a Palestinian suicide bomber in 1997.
Israel, whose Gaza policies have been under international scrutiny since its marines killed nine Turkish activists in brawls aboard an aid ship on May 31, dismissed the Irene mission as a "provocation."
"If they were serious about wanting to transfer aid to Gaza, they could easily do so after undergoing a screening for smuggled weaponry," said Andy David, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, referring to ports in Israel and Egypt that have received cargo for overland transport to the Palestinians.
Asked whether Israel's navy would try to turn back or intercept the Jewish activists, David declined comment.
Since May, Israel has eased land crossing into Gaza but maintains the naval blockade in what it says is an effort to stop arms being smuggled to Palestinian Hamas guerrillas.
"Compared to the restrictions which preceded them this is very small," said the Irene's captain, Glyn Secker, a 60-year-old Briton, referring to an easing of the restrictions. "(Gaza) is very much a barricaded society with a lot of suffering."
The group said they were taking a symbolic load of medicine, a water purifying kit and educational toys to Gaza.
"Israel doesn't have moral borders," said Reuven Moskovitz, who at 82, is the oldest member of the group and a Holocaust survivor.
"I'm going because I am a survivor. When I was in a ghetto and almost died I hoped there would be human beings who would show compassion and help."
Cyprus lies about 220 miles away from the shores of Gaza and has been used as a springboard for aid before.
Famagusta itself has resonance for many Jews; hundreds of them were interned in camps there by Cyprus's then British colonial administration as they attempted to head to what was then Palestine, also under British rule, between 1946 and 1948.
Famagusta is now in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus, a breakaway state that is recognized only by Ankara.
Ports in the southern Greek Cypriot-controlled areas of Cyprus were used to launch Gaza-bound activists from 2008 to mid-2009. Greek Cypriot authorities have since banned the sailings.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Noah Barkin)