LARNACA, Cyprus, (AP) – Two boats carrying members of a U.S.-based activist group left Cyprus for Gaza early Friday to try and break Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian territory.
The boats — the 70-foot Free Gaza and 60-foot Liberty — left the southern port of Larnaca about 10 a.m. for the estimated 30-hour trip.
Members of the Free Gaza protest group said some 40 activists from 14 countries — including an 81-year-old Catholic nun — will attempt to break the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza last year. 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.”
Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, routing forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Gaza’s 1.4 million Palestinians are already largely confined to their narrow strip of land by Israeli and Egyptian border closures. A trickle of people are still allowed to leave for medical care, jobs abroad and for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Israel and Hamas have observed a fragile truce since June.
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.
“It’s such a victory to leave the harbor without being sabotaged,” said Danish activist Adam Qvist, 22.
Group members sang a peace song in Arabic and formed the peace sign with their fingers before boarding the boats. They plan to deliver 200 hearing aids to a Palestinian charity for children and hand out 5,000 balloons.
“Trying to breach the wall of silence surrounding Gaza is the best way to show that when is a problem is hidden, it doesn’t exist,” said Greek MP Tasos Kourakis who joined the activists.
Israeli officials said the delivery is illegal because Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group. But they have refused to say how Israel would respond if the activists tried to break the blockade.
Free Gaza organizer Paul Larudee said it’s “highly unlikely” the Israeli navy would fire on the boats to stop them. But he said the group expects Israeli authorities to intercept the boats and arrest those onboard.
Larudee said the group would contest any arrests in court on the premise that Israeli authorities committed kidnapping.