(AFP) – Aug 22, 2008
LARNACA, Cyprus (AFP) — Two converted fishing boats set sail from Cyprus on Friday carrying 44 pro-Palestinian activists determined to break the Israeli blockade of the poverty-stricken Gaza Strip.
The activists, some of whom have received death threats, flashed peace signs and gave victory salutes before hugging each other and boarding the boats bound for Gaza -- and a possible confrontation with the Israeli Navy.
The boats left from Larnaca port on the island's south coast at 9.50 am (0650 GMT) to cheers from a small crowd of supporters.
The 370 kilometre (230 mile) journey to Gaza is expected to take up to 30 hours but the group expects to be stopped by Israeli forces before they reach Gaza.
Israel has warned the activists to steer clear of the territory, which it says "is the subject of an (Israeli Navy) advisory notice" that warns off foreign vessels from the "designated maritime zone."
"We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organisation in Gaza," the Israeli foreign ministry said in an open letter to the participants.
With the organisers nervous of a possible sabotage attempt by Israeli agents, Cypriot police frogmen checked underneath the boats before allowing them to set sail.
"I'm so glad -- it is a victory to be leaving the port without the boats being sabotaged," said the youngest member of the mission, Danish student Adam Qvist as the boats set off from Larnaca.
The two boats -- Liberty and Free Gaza -- are sailing under Greek flags and are carrying 200 hearing aids for Gaza children and 5,000 balloons.
"No matter what happens we have already achieved our goal by proving that ordinary citizens with ordinary means can mobilise a defence of human rights for Palestinians," organiser Paul Larudee told AFP.
"We want people to see the Palestinian problem as one of human rights not feeding them rice," he added.
Those on board hail from 14 countries and are aged between 22 and 81, organisers said. Among them are students, lawyers, doctors, journalists and an online poker player.
Many of those making the trip said they had received death threats. London-based Palestinian Osama Qashoo -- who received numerous threatening phone calls -- decided against making the trip on Friday.
"I'm not going," he said without elaborating.
The group hopes that the vessels will draw attention to the plight of Gaza's 1.5 million residents. Israel has sealed off the territory to all but very limited humanitarian supplies since the Islamist Hamas group seized control in June 2007.
The activists, mostly American and British, include Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British premier Tony Blair who is now an international Middle East peace envoy.
"I think we have a really good chance of making it, I've got to be optimistic. I'm nervous but excited because it's about the people waiting for us on the other side," said Booth, 41, wearing a Free Gaza necklace.
The movement says that up to 200,000 people in Gaza are preparing to welcome the boats when they arrive because it shows "they have not been forgotten."
Also travelling with the party is left-wing Greek MP Tasos Kourakis.
"This is an effort to break the wall of silence surrounding Gaza ... the EU and international community pretend they don't know what's happening in Gaza ... children are starving there," he told AFP.
However, 84-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein was unable to make the trip due to medical reason but stood at Larnaca dock to bid her colleagues farewell.
"I'm very sad I can't make it," said Epstein.
Provisions have been made to ensure that there is enough food and water on board to last 10 days in case of a lengthy stand off with the Israeli Navy, said Larudee.
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