Israel: Gaza blockade in place despite ships

Officials say decision not yet made if activists will be allowed to enter Israel, leave Gaza by land.

Gaza protest boats 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Gaza protest boats 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel's decision to allow two boats carrying international activists into Gaza's port on Saturday was a "one-time" event and did not constitute a decision by the government to allow sea access to the blockaded Palestinian territory. Carrying foreign activists from the US-based Free Gaza Movement, the two boats set sail from Cyprus on Friday and arrived in Gaza on Saturday. They received a warm welcome from thousands of jubilant Palestinians after a voyage marred by communications troubles and rough seas. The 46 activists from 14 countries include an 81-year-old Catholic nun and Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair. The organizations participating in the Free Gaza movement include the International Solidarity Movement. "In this media war, it was impossible for them [Israel] to win because they have no case for what they are doing to your port and to your borders," Booth said. As the boats docked in Gaza City's tiny port, children swarmed around the vessels and leaped into the water in joy, while thousands of cheering people looked on from the shore. Palestinian flags on one of the boats snapped in the wind, activists waved to the crowd, and the slogan "End Occupation" was written in large letters on its side. "We were all dizzy, nauseous. We were all tired. But in the last hour it was like we were recharged," said Ayash Daraj, a journalist with Al-Jazeera who sailed with the activists. Israeli defense officials said a consultation was held late last week between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak during which it was decided to allow the boats into Gaza and not to use the navy to prevent their arrival. "It was clear from the beginning that this whole operation was a provocation aimed at making Israel look bad," a senior defense official said on Saturday. "We decided to let them through in order not to play into their hands." The official stressed that despite the opening of the Gaza port for international boats on Saturday, Israel did not plan to lift its sea blockade of Gaza and would not allow additional ships into the Strip out of fear that they will try to transport weaponry and explosives to Hamas." The official added that Gaza was not experiencing a humanitarian crisis and was receiving sufficient food and supplies from Israel via the land crossings. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said that the decision to let the boats in, which was made at the highest governmental levels, was made for two reasons. "The first was to prevent a media provocation on the high seas," Mekel said, "and the second is because we knew who was on the boat, and that the equipment they were bringing in was humanitarian equipment for deaf people." Mekel said the decision was made on a one-time basis, and should not be seen as a precedent. Now that the group is in Gaza, the expectation in Jerusalem is that they will at some point ask Israel to let them into the country so they can fly back home, since it is unlikely they will want to sail back the way they came. No decision, however, has yet been made on whether they will be allowed into Israel. Jerusalem had initially hinted it would prevent the vessels from reaching Gaza, and on Saturday the group accused Israel of jamming its communications equipment. But later on Saturday, Israel said it would permit the boats to dock in Gaza after determining the activists did not pose a security threat. The activists brought with them a symbolic delivery of hearing aids and balloons for children. Organizers said they would stay in Gaza for 24 hours, though it remained unclear how they planned to leave. 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. "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 to watch. AP contributed to this report