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8 ships with aid, activists head for sealed Gaza
By KARIN LAUB
May 25, 2010
Eight ships carrying 10,000 tons of donated supplies and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists on Tuesday were making their way toward blockaded Gaza — and a likely weekend showdown with the Israeli navy.
The small flotilla carrying cement, prefab homes and other goods marks the most ambitious attempt yet to break the border blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant Hamas violently seized the territory in 2007.
Israel warned that it would not let the vessels reach Gaza, and has reportedly set up a detention center for the activists in the southern Israeli port of Ashdod. Israel also insisted there is no humanitarian crisis, claiming that it allows sufficient supplies into Gaza.
The latest attempt to break the blockade comes at a time of growing appeals by the international community to Israel to ease the border closure or lift it. Israel bars everything except for basic foods and humanitarian supplies, in hopes of driving out Hamas or at least forcing the Islamic militant group to release an Israeli soldier it has held for nearly four years.
In Istanbul, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged Israel on Tuesday to lift the blockade. Two of the eight ships were dispatched by a Turkish NGO, and Davutoglu said his government has raised the issue of the aid shipment with Israel.
However, he emphasized that the aid convoy is a civilian initiative and that Turkey wants to avoid renewed friction with Israel. `We will of course use all diplomatic opportunities so that there is no problem,` he said. `We do not want new tension.`
Israeli-Turkish relations cooled after Israel`s bruising military offensive in Gaza more than a year ago, launched to halt Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns. Turkish NGOs have been among the most active since then in delivering aid to Gaza.
Four cargo ships and four passenger vessels were heading toward the southern Mediterranean on Tuesday from various European ports, and planned to meet Friday off Cyprus, said Greta Berlin, one of the organizers. From there, they are to set off together for the one-day journey toward Gaza.
The cargo ships are carrying an array of donated goods not allowed into Gaza, including cement, prefab homes, lumber, window frames, paper for printing school books, children`s toys, a full dentist`s office, electric wheelchairs and high-end medical equipment, Berlin said.
Israel initially allowed several small ships to reach Gaza, but since December 2008 has blocked all vessels from reaching the territory.
Among the passengers are lawmakers from a dozen European countries, a Holocaust survivor in her 80s, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a retired U.S. army colonel, Berlin said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the vessels would be blocked.
`We have warned the organizers that they would be breaking international law if they try to force their way into Gaza waters,` he said. `We have explained to the relevant governments the nature of the situation and why the boats would not be permitted to land.`
Palmor said Israel asked the flotilla organizers to use land crossings to bring in the goods, but alleged they are less interested in delivering aid than in `promoting their radical agenda, playing into the hands of Hamas provocations.`
He said more than 1 million tons of humanitarian supplies have been allowed into Gaza since the Israeli military operation ended in January 2009, `almost a ton of aid for each man, woman and child` in Gaza.
The organizers said they hope to deliver goods not permitted by Israel, but that they also want to draw attention to the blockade.
`If we are being stopped, the world will see it on all the TV channels,` said activist Dror Feiler, who is sailing on one of the boats.
Associated Press writer Gulden Alp in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
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