Two boats carrying activists challenging an Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip reached the shore of the Hamas-controlled territory on Saturday.
The 44 “Free Gaza” activists from 17 nations, who had set out on Friday from Cyprus in two wooden boats, were met by thousands of Palestinians who cheered along the shoreline at their arrival.
“Today is a special day, we hope it’s the beginning. We have opened the path and we hope there will be more travelers,” said Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian peace activist, after the ship anchored off shore.
Israel pulled its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but tightened restrictions on the territory after Hamas Islamists routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces to seize control there more than a year ago.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel’s navy, which patrols the Gaza coastline, allowed the boats to enter Gaza “in order to avoid a well-publicized provocation in the middle of the sea”.
“Because we know who is on the boats and what they contain … we will allow them to land,” Mekel said, adding there had been no contact between the navy and the activists at sea.
Several boats carrying flag-waving Gazans met the seafaring activists just offshore and escorted them on the last leg of their 240 nautical mile voyage.
“The arrival of the two ships after this adventure represents a big breakthrough in the wall of the Israeli siege imposed on Gaza,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri as he watched the ships approach the coast.
Rami Abbo, a spokesman for the Palestinian Anti-Siege Committee, a group with ties to Hamas, called the ships’ arrival “a victory for the will of the Palestinian people”.
Among those making the trip to highlight poor living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza, was Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of Middle East peace envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and an 81-year-old American nun.
“The journey was long and hard, we had a lot of rough weather out of Cyprus. A lot of people got sick but it was worth it,” said Tom Nelson, 64, a lawyer from Portland, Oregon.
The activists were the first foreigners to cross the coastal blockade and brought with them a symbolic shipment of hearing aids. Despite the cordon, Israel allows humanitarian goods and medical equipment to enter the Gaza Strip.
Ahmed Amira, 35, who lives in Gaza City, said the voyage marked “the beginning of an end to the siege only if other organizations and friendly countries allow people to sail towards Gaza”.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called on the international community and Arab nations to make more efforts to help the Palestinian people in Gaza.
Hamas said 13 boats that had put to sea from Gaza earlier on Saturday aiming to greet the activists were forced to turn back by Israeli ships which fired shots in the air. An Israeli military spokeswoman said no naval vessel had fired in the area.
Israel and Hamas agreed a ceasefire in June. It calls on both sides to stop cross-border violence and on Israel to ease its blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The truce has largely held, although Gaza militants have fired rockets into Israel and the Jewish state has periodically closed its borders with the coastal enclave.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Michele Kambas and Ari Rabinovitch; editing by Myra MacDonald)http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSLN19477120080824