July 29, 2008 / 4:10 PM / in 10 years

Boat trip aims to break Israeli blockade of Gaza

By Daniel Flynn and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS, July 29 (Reuters) - Two boats carrying activists from 17 countries will leave the Mediterranean island of Cyprus next week bound for Gaza in a bid to break an Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory, organisers said on Tuesday.

The Free Gaza Movement hopes the boats, due to depart on Aug. 5 with around 40 people onboard, will draw attention to the plight of 1.4 million Palestinians suffering shortages of everything from fuel to food since an Israeli crackdown.

Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but has tightened security restrictions on the territory since the militant Islamic movement Hamas seized control there a year ago from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ security forces.

"We want to open Gaza to unrestricted international access," organiser Paul Larudee told a news conference in Athens.

The Free Gaza Movement’s organisers said they had not notified Israeli authorities of their plan and were prepared for resistance or even sabotage from them.



OFF LIMITS

A spokesman for Israel’s embassy in Athens had no comment. The Gaza Strip’s waters are patrolled by the Israeli navy.

"We are human rights watchers, we are not martyrs," activist Greta Berlin said. "Many of us have already been wounded by the Israelis: we’ve been beaten, we’ve been shot, we’ve been tear-gassed, yet we’re still prepared to go back."

Amongst those travelling on the two vessels will be a 84-year-old Holocaust surivor, a Catholic nun, and the sister-in-law of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Two Israeli citizens plan to travel despite facing prison sentences if they enter Gaza under Israeli law, Larudee said.

The two boats will bring some food and medical supplies, plus hearing aids for Palestinian children. They will return some exiled Gaza residents and hope to carry back seven Palestinians with visas to study in the United States.

If stopped, they plan to return to Cyprus and try again.

"We are prepared to do this for as long as there are people who want to do it and as long the funds permit us," he said.

The Israelis completed a wall around the Gaza Strip in 1996, which is credited by authorities with virtually halting suicide bombings in Israel. There are only three land crossings operating into the Gaza Strip, Larudee said.

(Writing by Daniel Flynn, Editing by Angus MacSwan)




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