Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:30 pm (KSA) 09:30 am (GMT)

Activists sail into Gaza despite Israeli blockade

The boats set sail on Friday from Cyprus
The boats set sail on Friday from Cyprus

Two boats from Cyprus carrying 44 pro-Palestinian activists arrived in the Gaza Strip on Saturday after Israel allowed them through despite its tight blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.

The boats set sail on Friday from the Mediterranean island carrying activists from 17 countries, including Israel, determined to draw attention to the blockade of Gaza where the Islamist Hamas movement has ruled since June 2007.

The boats sailed through choppy grey waters and into Gaza City's main port, where they were greeted by thousands of people waving Palestinian flags, many of them motoring around the harbor in boats.

"This is a great victory in breaking the siege and the beginning of what we hope will be more and more boats," said Riad al-Faraj, the Gaza-based head of the International Committee to Break the Siege, which helped organize the trip.

Israel had initially warned the activists to stay away from Gaza's coastal waters, saying the voyage would support "the regime of a terror organization," but in the end allowed them to pass through without incident.

"They wanted provocation at sea but they won't get it. We know who the passengers are and what they are bringing with them and so we have no problem letting them through," foreign ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron told AFP.

Earlier in the day around 20 Gaza fishing boats flying Palestinian flags had left Gaza City's main port in a bid to welcome the two blockade runners, but were turned back when Israeli gunships in the distance fired warning shots.

Israel has tightened its blockade of Gaza since Hamas seized power in June 2007, sealing the territory off from all but vital humanitarian aid in a bid to put pressure on Palestinian militants who have fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel in the past year.

The boats, Liberty and Free Gaza, had embarked on the 370-kilometre (230-mile) voyage from the Larnaca port on Cyprus's south coast and carried 200 hearing aids for Gaza children and 5,000 balloons.

The activists were between 22 and 81, organizers said, and among them were students, lawyers, doctors, journalists and an online poker player.

Mostly American and British, they include Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British premier Tony Blair who is now an international Middle East peace envoy.

Many of the activists said they had received death threats before they set sail, and some demonstrators dropped out.

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