Boats with pro-Palestinian activists reach Gaza

Two boats of international activists on a solidarity mission with the Palestinians have reached the Gaza Strip after a two-day journey at sea.

Two boats carrying dozens of international activists sailed into the Gaza Strip Saturday in defiance of an Israeli blockade, receiving a jubilant welcome from thousands of Palestinians.

The boats docked in Gaza City's tiny port after a two-day journey marred by communications troubles and rough seas. As they arrived, children swarmed around and leaped into the water in joy, while thousands of cheering residents looked on from the shore.

On one of the boats, "End Occupation" was written in large letters and Palestinian flags snapped in the wind. The activists waved to the crowd.

"It was a tough time, almost 36 hours. It was very hard for many of us," said one of the activists, Tom Nelson, a 64-year-old lawyer from Zigzag, Ore. "But the Gaza people are amazing."

He said he hoped the group's arrival would draw attention in the West to the difficult conditions caused by the blockade, which Israel imposed in June 2007 after Hamas gunmen ousted their Fatah counterparts in Gaza.

Since that takeover, Israel — which, like many countries in the West, regards Hamas as a terrorist organization — has allowed little more than basic humanitarian supplies into the strip, causing widespread shortages of fuel, electricity and basic goods.

Since setting sail from Cyprus early Friday, the mission by the U.S.-based Free Gaza Movement had been in question. Israel initially hinted it would prevent the vessels from reaching Gaza, and on Saturday, the group accused Israel of jamming its communications equipment.

But late Saturday, Israel said it would permit the boats to dock in Gaza after determining the activists did not pose a security threat. The group delivered a symbolic shipment of hearing aids and balloons.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel wanted "to avoid the media provocation" that the group was seeking. He dismissed the allegations that Israel damaged the communications system as "total lies."

When the two boats were first spotted off the Gaza coast, five Palestinian boats rushed out to sea to greet them, while dozens of smaller crafts waited closer to shore.

A boy scout band sat in one boat banging drums and blowing horns, while another carried Gazan activists waving Palestinian flags.

"They are very brave, they are very strong, I am proud of them," said Samira Ayash, a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher who came to watch.

Israel has closed its trade crossings with Gaza while neighboring Egypt sealed its passenger crossing, confining the strip's 1.4 million residents.

Only a trickle of people has been allowed to leave for medical care, jobs abroad and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The 70-foot Free Gaza and 60-foot Liberty left Cyprus early Friday for the journey. The 46 activists from 14 countries include an 81-year-old Catholic nun and Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of international Mideast envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

"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.

The activists were the first foreigners to break the blockade. Organizers said they would stay in Gaza for 24 hours, though it remained unclear how they planned to leave. Israel controls all movement in and out of Gaza.

Among those who welcomed the activist was Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's leader in Gaza and a former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

"We call for more activities to break the unfair siege imposed on our people," said Haniyeh.

Mekel, the Israeli spokesman, said Israel's decision did not mean that future deliveries would necessarily be permitted.

"This decision was about these boats. We will see what happens with any future boats," he said.

Under a June truce deal that halted a deadly cycle of bruising Palestinian rocket attacks and deadly Israel air strikes, Israel has pledged to ease the blockade. But Palestinians say the flow of goods into Gaza remains insufficient and there has been little improvement in the quality of life.

Israel has periodically closed the cargo crossings in response to sporadic Palestinian rocket fire that violated the truce.

Hamas won the most seats in the 2006 Palestinian Authority election, beating the long-dominant Fatah party. Haniyeh became Palestinian Authority prime minister, although Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah continued on as president.

Hamas was eventually forced to form a coalition government with Fatah because of renewed violence and a Western-led boycott that shut off billions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians.

However, the coalition was paralyzed by power struggles and eventually degenerated into the open warfare that saw Hamas rout Fatah in Gaza. Abbas, based in the West Bank, dissolved the tenuous Hamas-Fatah government and formed a new one that Hamas refuses to recognize.