- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | Two boats carrying dozens of international activists sailed into the Gaza Strip on 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 in Gaza.

Under the closure imposed in June 2007 after Hamas violently seized power in Gaza, Israel 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.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel wanted “to avoid the media provocation” that the group was seeking. He dismissed charges 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-type 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, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, 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 are allowed to leave for medical care, jobs abroad and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

cAssociated Press reporter Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Jerusalem

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