JERUSALEM - Two boats carrying dozens of international activistssailed into the Gaza Strip Saturday in defiance of an Israeli blockade,receiving a jubilant welcome from thousands of Palestinians. Theboats docked in Gaza City’s tiny port after a two-day journey marred bycommunications troubles and rough seas. As they arrived, childrenswarmed around and leaped into the water in joy, while thousands ofcheering residents looked on from the shore.
On one of the boats, “End Occupation” was written in large lettersand Palestinian flags snapped in the wind. The activists waved to thecrowd.
“It was a tough time, almost 36 hours. It was very hard for many ofus,” said one of the activists, Tom Nelson, a 64-year-old lawyer fromZigzag, Ore. “But the Gaza people are amazing,” he added.
He said he hoped the group’s arrival would draw attention in theWest to the difficult conditions caused by the blockade in Gaza.
Under the closure imposed in June 2007 after Hamas violently seizedpower in Gaza, Israel has allowed little more than basic humanitariansupplies into the strip, causing widespread shortages of fuel,electricity and basic goods.
Since setting sail from Cyprus early Friday, the mission by theU.S.-based Free Gaza Movement had been in question. Israel initiallyhinted it would prevent the vessels from reaching Gaza, and onSaturday, the group accused Israel of jamming its communicationsequipment.
But late Saturday, Israel said it would permit the boats to dock inGaza after determining the activists did not pose a security threat.The group delivered a symbolic shipment of hearing aids and balloons.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel wanted “to avoidthe media provocation” that the group was seeking. He dismissed theallegations that Israel damaged the communications system as “totallies.”
When the two boats were first spotted off the Gaza coast, fivePalestinian boats rushed out to sea to greet them, while dozens ofsmaller crafts waited closer to shore.
A boy scout band sat in one boat banging drums and blowing horns,while another carried Gazan activists waving Palestinian flags.
“They are very brave, they are very strong, I am proud of them,”said Samira Ayash, a 65-year-old retired school teacher who came towatch.
Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, has closedits trade crossings with Gaza while neighboring Egypt sealed itspassenger crossing, confining the strip’s 1.4 million residents.
Only a trickle of people are allowed to leave for medical care, jobs abroad and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
The 70-foot Free Gaza and 60-foot Liberty left Cyprus early Fridayfor the journey. The 46 activists from 14 countries include an81-year-old Catholic nun and Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law ofinternational Mideast envoy and former British Prime Minister TonyBlair.
“In this media war, it was impossible for them (Israel) to winbecause they have no case for what they are doing to your port and toyour borders,” Booth said.
The activists were the first foreigners to break the blockade.Organizers said they would stay in Gaza for 24 hours, though itremained unclear how they planned to leave. Israel controls allmovement in and out of Gaza.
Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh welcomed the activists.
“We call for more activities to break the unfair siege imposed on our people,” Haniyeh said.
Mekel, the Israeli spokesman, said Israel’s decision did not mean that future deliveries would necessarily be permitted.
“This decision was about these boats. We will see what happens with any future boats,” he said.
Under a June truce deal which halted a deadly cycle of bruisingPalestinian rocket attacks and deadly Israel airstrikes, Israel haspledged to ease the blockade. But Palestinians say the flow of goodsinto Gaza remains insufficient and there has been little improvement inthe quality of life.
Israel has periodically closed the cargo crossings in response to sporadic Palestinian rocket fire that violated the truce.