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Associated Press

Free Gaza Activists Still in Custody in Israel

Aron Heller

'Spirit of Humanity' sails for Gaza

JERUSALEM -- Most members of a group of foreign peace activists seized at sea by the Israeli navy remained in custody Friday, three days after their failed attempt to run Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, relatives and supporters said.

In the latest attempt by activists to break a crippling two-year blockade of Gaza, a group called the Free Gaza Movement sent the ship loaded with humanitarian supplies and 21 activists and crew from Cyprus.

The Israeli navy intercepted the ship Tuesday after it ignored repeated messages saying it would not be allowed to enter Gaza waters and ordering it to turn back.

Among those still being held Friday were former U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, said Sandra Law, mother of detained British activist Alex Harrison.

Law, speaking to The Associated Press from her London home, said her daughter was being held together with other women from the group at Ramle jail, near Ben-Gurion airport. She said she spoke briefly to her daughter on Friday.

"The conditions (in the jail) aren't great, but they're certainly not as bad as they could be," Law said. "They're in good spirits. ... Alex is very upbeat."

She said the planned deportation of the activists may have been delayed by their refusal to sign legal documents in Hebrew, which they do not understand.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that those who signed an undertaking to return home voluntarily could be released immediately and repatriated on the first available flight.

He said the law demanded that those who refused that option must be held for 72 hours before being served a compulsory deportation order.

He said if they choose not to fight that order in local courts they could be deported Saturday night or Sunday. He did not know exactly how many group members remained jailed Friday.

The Free Gaza Movement said several Bahrainis among the group were released after the intervention of that country's ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Others on the passenger list included a Jordanian correspondent for Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera and his Yemeni cameraman as well as a Palestinian human rights activist. There were also activists from the United States, Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

A military statement issued on Tuesday said Israeli naval personnel boarded their small vessel without any shots being fired. It was ordered to the Israeli port of Ashdod and impounded.

The Free Gaza Movement has organized five boat trips to Gaza since August 2008, defying a blockade imposed by Israel when the militant group Hamas seized control of the territory from its Palestinian rivals in June 2007.

Two other attempts were stopped by Israeli warships during Israel's three-week war in the territory in December and January. Nobody on board was harmed.

An Israeli news site reported Friday that the Defense Ministry had recommended a slight easing of the Gaza blockade as a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians to spur talks to free a captive soldier.

Israel has linked the opening of its border with Gaza to the release of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas militants for three years. Hamas has been pushing for a deal to trade him for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

An unsourced report on YNet, the Web site of the Yediot Ahronot daily, said that under the draft proposal Israel would increase supplies of meat, fish, coffee, tea, soups and canned goods into Gaza ahead of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which begins in August, to promote a deal for Schalit.

Israel would also renew shipments of fuel, clothing, kitchenware and hens as part of the package.

YNet said the proposal, drafted by defense officials, awaits the approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The Defense Ministry would not comment on the report.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Palestinians demanded a complete end to the blockade.

"The siege must be lifted and all the crossings have to be open and life to get back to normal in the Gaza Strip," he told reporters outside a Gaza mosque after Friday prayers.

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