While Israeli bulldozers rolled out across the West Bank yesterday, marking an end to the freeze on settlement construction and possibly the Middle East peace talks, seven Jewish activists and two journalists sailed toward the Gaza Strip in an attempt to breach the Israeli blockade of that region.
This morning the Israeli navy intercepted the British-flagged Irene, a tiny 33-foot catamaran carrying what the activists described as "symbolic aid" for the Palestinian Territory. The mission's organizers said in a statement on their website www.Jewishboattogaza.org:
The occupied Gaza Strip's territorial waters end 12 nautical miles from shore but the Israeli blockade is enforced at 20 miles from shore.
The statement reports the activists were taken to the Israeli port, Ashdod.
Sponsored by a coalition of European, American and Australian Jewish groups, the Irene set sail from Cyprus, Sunday, Sept. 26 -- approximately four months after Israeli commandos raided a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Nine activists were killed during that attack. Al Jazeera reports that since then, groups from Iran, Ireland, Lebanon and Libya have tried to send boats to the Palestinian Territory with varying degrees of success.
Passengers on the Jewish boat included American Lillian Rosengarten, a 75-year old psychotherapist and Nazi refugee, and four Israelis, several of whom are deeply involved in peace efforts in their homeland.
Reuven Moskovitz, 82, is a holocaust survivor and founding member of the Jewish-Arab village Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salaam (Oasis of Peace). Yonatan Shapiro, a former pilot for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), is a member of Combatants for Peace and works with former Palestinian militants, advocating for dialogue and co-existence. Rami Elhanan, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing, is the founding member of Bereaved Families Circle of Israelis and Palestinians who lost their loved ones to the conflict.
In a statement explaining why they set sail for Gaza, the Jewish activists said they wanted to assert that "Israel's policies are not supported by all Jews, there are thousands of us who wish to say 'not in our name:'"
According to the activists, the Irene was carrying a small amount of medical equipment, textbooks, musical instruments, art supplies and outboard motors for Gaza's fishermen.
Israel's Ynet News reports the foreign passengers were handed over to Israel's Ministry of Interior while the Israelis were taken in for questioning by the police on suspicion of illegally entering Israel.
Israeli officials have severely condemned the Irene's voyage and seem particularly upset with the Israeli participants. "They poured fuel onto the bonfire of hatred against Israel world wide. We don't expect Israelis to be patriotic but they should definitely not act as Hamas followers," an unnamed official from Israel's Foreign Ministry told Ynet.
The activists, however, remained in high spirits throughout their ordeal -- singing and hugging one another as Israeli navy vessels surrounded their boat. "We are only sorry they plan to stop us and remind everyone that a true hero is one who tries to turn an enemy into a friend," the 82-year old Moskovitz said during and interview with Ynet during the raid