LARNACA, Cyprus (Reuters) – International activists departed from Cyprus by boat on Friday in an attempt to run an Israeli sea blockade on 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza.
The 44 activists sailed from the port of Larnaca in two wooden boats at 9:50 a.m. (2:50 a.m. EDT). Hailing from 14 countries, they said they expected to reach the shores of Gaza, patrolled by the Israeli navy, on Saturday.
“It has been 41 years since any boat has traveled in those waters, and we plan to be the first,” said U.S. citizen Paul Larudee, one of the organizers of the “Free Gaza” campaign.
A previous attempt by the Palestinian Liberation Organization to sail to Haifa from Cyprus with Palestinian deportees failed in 1988, when a limpet bomb blew a hole in the hull of a ferry boat they had chartered.
An Israeli army spokesman declined to say whether the navy had plans to intercept the ship before it reached Gaza.
“We are following the developments,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said.
The activists include an 81 year old Catholic nun, the sister in law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a member of the Greek parliament. Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 84, initially scheduled to go, could not for medical reasons.
They say they plan to deliver some aid to Palestinians in the Gaza strip, but that the main purpose is to highlight the living conditions of people suffering shortages of everything from food to fuel since an Israeli crackdown.
“The siege that the Israelis have imposed on Gaza is not only illegal in terms of international law, it is also immoral,” said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian with Israeli and U.S. citizenship.
“Global institutions and the governments of the world know what is happening and are not doing anything about it,” she said.
Cyprus, which lies some 240 nautical miles west of Gaza, could not legally stop the departure of the boats. A Cypriot official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters there had been “soundings” by Israeli authorities on whether the vessels could be prevented from sailing from Cypriot shores.
“Provided documentation was in order they could sail. That’s the law and we cannot break it,” the Cypriot source said.
Israel pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but has tightened security restrictions on the territory since the militant Islamic movement Hamas seized control there a year ago from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ security forces.
The Israelis completed a wall around the Gaza strip in 1996, and they credit the barrier with virtually halting suicide attacks from the coastal territory.
Activists say their mission is a peaceful one. “There is this slow genocide going on in Gaza and nobody is taking any notice,” said Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and author.
“When the Holocaust happened the whole world looked the other way while this atrocity against humanity was unfolding and it was often said we cannot allow this to happen again.”