Blockade protesters dock in Cyprus

Seven Gazans join activists; Free Gaza Group: Way now clear to deliver humanitarian assistance.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit: )
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
Two boatloads of international protesters who claimed to have defied Israel's blockade of Gaza sailed into Cyprus's Larnaca port late Friday, carrying seven Gaza Palestinians. Some 32 protesters escorted the Palestinians on the 30-hour voyage back to the east Mediterranean island that they hailed as effectively ending the Gaza blockade. "It's opened the door to everything," said US-based Free Gaza Group organizer, American Paul Larudee. He said the way was now clear to deliver humanitarian assistance and ferry people in and out. Protester Derek Graham, 40, an electrician from Ireland, said the group wanted to start a regular ferry service linking Gaza to Cyprus "to keep the borders open." The two small boats sailed into Gaza last Saturday to protest the blockade, imposed after Hamas overran the territory. Israeli officials said the decision to allow the boats to reach Gaza and then to sail back to Cyprus was an attempt to deny the protesters a propaganda victory. Defense officials said Thursday that there was no set policy on how Israel would react in the event that another ship coming from international waters tried to enter Gaza. Officials said that as of now, Israel knew of no plans for other boats to set sail for Gaza, and that if other boats do try to enter, Israel would decide how to handle the situation on a case-by-case basis. In Friday's case, the officials said Israel had been aware of who was on board the ships - including the identity of the Palestinians - and had not interfered since none of the passengers posed a security risk. Government officials said the protesters were likely to face problems in Cyprus, which will now have to decide whether to allow in the Palestinians. A group of 50 well-wishers greeted the protesters and Palestinians at dockside. Each passenger was handed a red rose as he or she disembarked. Some protesters displayed Palestinian passports that Gaza authorities had issued them. The Palestinians include a teenager whom protesters said had lost his left leg from the hip to an IDF tank shell explosion two years ago. Saed Musleh, 15, accompanied by his father Khaled, sailed to Cyprus in hopes of being fitted with an artificial limb either on the island, or another country. Free Gaza group member, Palestinian Musheir Elfarra, 47, said Palestinian authorities agreed to cover the teenager's medical expenses. An ambulance took Musleh to Larnaca General Hospital for a checkup. "I hope all my fellow children who lost limbs can get out of Gaza and get artificial limbs," Musleh said through an interpreter. "I hope the entire world follows the example of this group of activists who broke the siege." Also among the Palestinians were a mother and her four children who were reunited with her Cyprus-based brother after a decade. Aiman Soboh, owner of Limassol-based company Soboh Petroleum, hugged and kissed his sister Maha and her children aged 4 to 18 after Cypriot officials cleared their paperwork. "I feel very happy," said Maha. "It's very bad there [Gaza], it's like a prison... I wish for freedom in Palestine." Soboh said his sister and kids would remain on the island until they decide where they want to live permanently. Among their options is Canada. "I say, 'Thank God,'" said Soboh. "It's like a miracle." Larudee said one of the two boats would make the trip back to Gaza in two to four weeks' time loaded with medical supplies. He said the boat would ferry more Palestinians to the island on the return trip after the passengers are vetted to ensure they have the appropriate travel documents. Larudee said organizers would coordinate with Cypriot authorities to ensure no Palestinians were turned away.