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Jewish Activists Set Sail for Gaza from Cyprus

by Menelaos Hadjicostis

FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus -- A boat carrying Jewish activists from Israel, Germany, the U.S. and Britain set sail on Sunday for Gaza, hoping to breach Israel's naval blockade there.

A boat with 9 Jewish activists aboard sets sail from Famagusta harbor in the Turkish-occupied north of ethnically divided Cyprus in a bid to breach the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias) Richard Kuper, an organizer with the British group Jews for Justice for Palestinians, said one goal is to show that not all Jews support Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Kuper said the boat, which set sail from northern Cyprus flying a British flag, won't resist if Israeli authorities try to stop it.

The voyage by the 33-foot (10-meter) catamaran Irene came nearly four months after Israeli commandos boarded a flotilla of Gaza-bound ships, including the Mavi Marmara, killing eight pro-Palestinian Turkish activists and a Turkish American.

Irene passenger Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose daughter Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing at a shopping mall in Jerusalem in 1997, said it was his "moral duty" to act in support of Palestinians in Gaza because reconciliation was the surest path to peace.

"Those 1.5 million people in Gaza are victims exactly as I am," Elhanan, 60, said in an interview.

Alison Prager, another Jews for Justice for Palestinians organizer, said many Jews have been on previous "blockade-busting trips" to Gaza, but this was the first time Jewish groups have banded together to send a boat of their own.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Andy David called the latest protest boat "a provocative joke that isn't funny."

"It's unfortunate that there are all kids of organizations involved in provocations that contribute nothing and certainly don't contribute to any kind of agreement," David said.

Yousef Rizka, an official with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, said: "The government has received Jewish activists arriving to Gaza before. The government positively views all attempts to break the siege on Gaza."

The voyage came as Israelis, Palestinians and U.S. mediators sought a compromise that would allow Mideast talks to continue after an Israeli settlement slowdown expires at midnight.

Israel maintains a strict naval blockade on Gaza Strip that bars ships from entering the coastal territory. It is a part of the Jewish state's wider blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza, imposed when the militant group seized power.

After the international backlash over the Mavi Marmara attack, Israel eased its blockade on commercial goods, but it maintains tight restrictions on construction materials, exports and on the movement of Gazans.

The three-year blockade, which is supported by neighboring Egypt, has badly impoverished already needy Gaza residents, penned them into the territory and caused one of the world's highest unemployment rates.

The Iranian-backed militant group Hamas has called for Israel's destruction. Hamas officials have angrily denied that the Holocaust ever happened, and their literature is replete with anti-Semitic references.

Kuper said the activists were not seeking to support Hamas, but to send a message that Gaza civilians shouldn't be punished for the actions of their rulers.

The Irene catamaran, carrying a total of nine passengers and crew members, set sail from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island because the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south imposed a ban on all-Gaza-bound vessels in May, citing "vital interests." Prior to the ban, international activists had used south Cyprus to launch eight boat trips to Gaza over a two-year span.

Cyprus was ethnically split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it and maintains 35,000 troops there.

Kuper said the activists did not seek to stir controversy by leaving from north Cyprus, but that "practicalities" necessitated the choice.

The Irene vessel planned to deliver children's toys, medical equipment, outboard motors for fishing boats and books to Gaza residents.

Kuper said the voyage is a "symbolic statement" intended to show that not all Jews support Israeli policies toward Palestinians and to underscore what he called Israel's "illegal, unnecessary and inhumane" blockade of Gaza.

"Jewish communities around the world are not united in support of Israel," Kuper said in a telephone interview from London. "Israel's future peace is coming to terms quickly with the Palestinians."

Kuper said the trip was funded entirely by supporters' donations.

Associated Press Writers Matti Friedman from Jerusalem and Ibrahim Barzak from Gaza City contributed to this report.

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