Israel warns activists sailing to Gaza Strip

Group demands end to blockade

Mary Hughes-Thompson arranged her bag yesterday as she and other activists prepared to sail from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip. Mary Hughes-Thompson arranged her bag yesterday as she and other activists prepared to sail from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip. (STEFANOS KOURATZIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
By Josef Federman
Associated Press / August 23, 2008
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JERUSALEM - Israel yesterday issued a tough threat against activists sailing toward the Gaza Strip with a delivery of humanitarian supplies, calling the mission an unacceptable provocation and saying all options were under consideration.

The two boats carrying members of a US-based activist group set sail from Cyprus early yesterday in a bid to break Israel's 14-month blockade of Gaza. The activists hope to reach Gaza's shores today.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said Israel was closely following the boats.

"We will make sure that this provocation is not taking place," he said. He declined to reveal whether military action was planned, saying only that "all the options are being considered." A military spokeswoman refused to comment.

Members of the Free Gaza protest group could not immediately be reached for comment, but earlier, organizer Paul Larudee said the group expects Israeli authorities to intercept the boats and arrest those aboard. He said it was "highly unlikely" the Israeli navy would fire on them.

The 70-foot Free Gaza and 60-foot Liberty left the southern port of Larnaca about 10 a.m. yesterday for the estimated 30-hour trip. They plan to deliver 200 hearing aids to a Palestinian charity for children and hand out 5,000 balloons.

The group said about 46 activists from 14 countries - including an 81-year-old Catholic nun - were participating. They hope other rights groups will follow their example.

"I've been nervous, but today I'm excited," said activist Lauren Booth, 41, sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "It's not about our fear, it's about the people waiting in Gaza. You can't think about anything else."

Israeli officials say the delivery is illegal because Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group. Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings.

Israel sealed its borders with Gaza after Hamas violently took power in June 2007, routing forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority. Under the closure, Israel has allowed little more than basic humanitarian supplies into Gaza.

The embargo, along with Egypt's closure of its border with Gaza, has confined Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians to their narrow strip of land and caused 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.

Israel and Hamas have observed a truce since June. Under the cease-fire, 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.

The boats departed after last-minute engine repairs to the Liberty, passenger safety drills, and a final inspection of the vessels' hulls by Cyprus Marine Police divers.

"Trying to breach the wall of silence surrounding Gaza is the best way to show that when a problem is hidden, it doesn't exist," said Tasos Kourakis, a Greek lawmaker who joined the activists.

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