Jerusalem - A boatload of pro-Palestinian activists landed on the shores of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, the latest move in a campaign to defy Israeli restrictions on access to the territory.
A potential showdown at sea was averted at the last minute when the Israeli government abruptly backed down from threats to intercept the 66-foot yacht.
"Last night at the highest level, a reverse decision was taken," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. The ultimate choice, he said, was made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The yacht Dignity arrived from Cyprus carrying medical supplies and 27 passengers, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Their journey continued a campaign launched in August, when a pair of ships first made the Cyprus-Gaza run.
"I think we're right at the point where [the boat campaign] stops being symbolic and begins to seriously weaken the Israeli siege," said Palestinian Authority parliament member Mustafa Barghouti.
Palmor downplayed the significance of the campaign, saying that the welcoming crowds Wednesday were significantly smaller than in August.
Several boats full of flag-waving Gazans escorted the Dignity to shore. The visitors later met with deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of the militant group Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006 and seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah faction in the summer of 2007 after a short-lived unity government collapsed. Fatah continues to control the Palestinian Authority, but rules only over the West Bank.
Barghouti hailed the day's journey as a victory for those who seek to peacefully undermine the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
"Hopefully it shows all groups, including Hamas, the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance," Barghouti said after meeting with Haniyeh.
Israel, with U.S. backing and Egyptian assistance, virtually sealed the narrow, densely populated coastal ribbon after the Hamas takeover. Limited humanitarian shipments are allowed in, and almost nothing is allowed out.
Israel and Hamas are observing a truce. Hamas has restrained its cadres from the rocket launches that used to plague Israeli border towns, and Israel has increased the flow of humanitarian goods. But the Gazan economy remains frozen and almost entirely dependent on goods smuggled through tunnels from Egypt.
"The government of Israel cannot cut off Gaza forever. We will come again and again," said longtime Palestinian rights supporter Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
In August, when the two boats were permitted to land unhindered, Israeli officials said they were denying the activists the confrontation they desired. This time Israeli took a harder line. When the Dignity left Cyprus on Tuesday, Israeli officials flatly stated that the boat would be intercepted.
But Olmert, who resigned weeks ago but remains in a caretaker role until new elections can be held early next year, changed his mind Tuesday night.