Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pro-Palestinian aid flotilla sets sail for Gaza

The Associated Press

HAIFA, Israel — Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists on Sunday set sail for the Gaza Strip from international waters off the coast of Cyprus, edging closer to an expected naval showdown with Israeli gunships determined to stop them.

Huwaida Arraf, one of the organizers, said the six-ship flotilla began the journey toward Gaza on Sunday afternoon after two days of delays. She said they expected to reach Gaza, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) away, on Monday afternoon, and that two more ships expected to follow in "a second wave."

She said the flotilla was "fully prepared for the different scenarios" that might arise, and that organizers were hopeful that Israeli authorities would "do what's right" and not stop the convoy.

"We fully intend to go to Gaza regardless of any intimidation of threats of violence against us," she said. "They are going to have to forcefully stop us."

The flotilla, which includes three cargo ships and three passenger ships, is trying to draw attention to Israel's three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. The boats are carrying materials that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building materials. The activists say they are also carrying hundreds of electrical-powered wheelchairs, prefabricated homes and water purifiers.

Some 700 pro-Palestinian activists are also on the boats, including 1976 Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, European legislators and an elderly Holocaust survivor.

The mission has experienced repeated delays, both to mechanical problems and a decision by Cyprus to bar any boat from sailing from its shore to Gaza. The ban forced a group of European lawmakers to depart from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot northern part of the island late Saturday.

Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade on Gaza after Hamas militants violently seized control of the seaside territory in June 2007.

Israel says the measures are needed to prevent Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets at Israel, from building up its arsenal. But U.N. officials and international aid groups say the blockade has been counterproductive, failing to weaken Hamas while devastating the local economy.

In particular, the ban on building materials has prevented Gazans from repairing thousands of homes that were damaged or destroyed in an Israeli military offensive, meant to stop Hamas rocket attacks, early last year.

Israel rejects claims there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, saying it allows more than enough food and medicines into the territory. They also point to the bustling smuggling industry along Gaza's southern border with Egypt, which has managed to bring consumer goods, gasoline and livestock into the area.

Israel has condemned the flotilla as a provocation and vowed to block it from reaching Gaza.

In initial preparations, naval gunships were dispatched Friday to wait for the ships. Other gunships remained in the northern port of Haifa, waiting for the flotilla to get closer before heading out to sea.

Israeli military officials say they hope to resolve the situation peacefully but are prepared for all scenarios. Naval commandos have been training for days in anticipation of the standoff.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said foreigners on the ships would be "sent back to their countries." Activists who did not willingly agree to be sent back would be detained. A special detention facility has been set up in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.

This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008.

Israel has let ships through five times, but has blocked them from entering Gaza waters since a three-week military offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers in January 2009. The flotilla bound for Gaza is the largest to date.

At Gaza's tiny port, meant for small fishing boats, Hamas officials, activists and foreign nationals prepared to welcome the flotilla. They sat in some 40 small boats, bobbing in the sea, decorated with the flags of the countries of the pro-Palestinian activists, including Turkey and Algeria.

In other boats, Gaza boy scouts played music, while on shore, other activists released balloons with the faces of Palestinian civilians and militants killed in battles with Israeli forces.


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