GAZA, (Reuters) – Two boats carrying activists challenging an Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip reached the shore of the Hamas-controlled territory on Saturday.
The 44 “Free Gaza” activists from 17 nations set out on Friday from Cyprus in two wooden boats. Hundreds of Palestinians watched their arrival along the coast, which is patrolled by the Israeli navy.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel allowed the boats to enter Gaza “in order to avoid a well-publicised provocation in the middle of the sea.” “Because we know who is on the boats and what they contain … we will allow them to land,” Mekel said, adding there had been no contact between the navy and the activists throughout the voyage.
Several boats carrying flag waving Gazans met the seafaring activists just offshore and escorted them on the last leg of their 240 nautical mile voyage.
“The arrival of the two ships after this adventure represents a big breakthrough in the wall of the Israeli siege imposed on Gaza,” said Hamas spokesamn Sami Abu Zuhri as he watched the ships approach the coast.
Rami Abbo, a spokesman for the Palestinian Anti-Siege Committee, a group with ties to Hamas, called the ships’ arrival “a victory for the will of the Palestinian people”.
Among those making the trip to highlight poor living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza, was the sister-in-law of Middle East peace envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair and an 81-year- old American nun.
Officials of the Islamist Hamas movement said 13 boats that had put to sea from Gaza earlier on Saturday aiming to greet the activists were forced to turn back by Israeli ships which fired shots in the air. An Israeli military spokeswoman said no naval vessel had fired in the area.
Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but has tightened restrictions on the territory since Hamas seized control there last year from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces.
Israel and Hamas agreed a ceasefire in June. It calls on both sides to stop cross-border violence and on Israel to ease its blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The truce has largely held, although Gaza militants have fired rockets into Israel and the Jewish state has periodically closed its borders with the coastal enclave.