Pro-Palestinian Activists Enter Gaza, But Can They Leave?

By Julie Stahl | August 25, 2008 | 11:38 AM EDT

Jerusalem ( – Israel allowed dozens of pro-Palestinian activists to sail into the Gaza Strip over the weekend rather than set up a confrontation with the Israeli navy, which would have drawn adverse media coverage for Israel.
However, no decision has been made yet on how or when the activists will be allowed to leave the Gaza Strip, an Israeli official said on Monday.
Thousands of Palestinians greeted the two boats of the Free Gaza Movement on Saturday. The boats were carrying around 46 human rights activists from 14 countries, including an Israeli, an 81-year-old nun, and Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair is now serving as a Middle East envoy.
The activists’ stated aim is to break what they call Israel’s illegal siege on the Gaza Strip.
On Monday, the activists symbolically broke the blockade by escorting a handful of Palestinian fishing boats beyond the six-mile limit that Israel allows, said Jeff Halper, a dual Israeli-American citizen who was the only Israeli to travel with the U.S.-based group.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said the group is “joining hands” with Hamas terrorists that “the entire world is boycotting.”
Over the weekend, the activists were invited to lunch with deposed P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
Halper, a professor who heads a pro-Palestinian group here called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, did not join the group, a statement from his office said.
Israel imposed a strict closure on the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized control in a violent coup more than a year ago. The closure was intended to weaken support for the Hamas-led government. Since then, Israel has permitted humanitarian aid, fuel and other necessities into the Gaza Strip despite continued Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israeli communities. Only humanitarian cases have been allowed out of the Gaza Strip.
Israel and Hamas -- whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state in its place -- entered into an Egyptian-brokered truce in June. Since then, more than 40 rockets and mortars have been launched at Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Two rockets were launched at Israel on Monday, including one that fell inside Israel, reports said.
Israel hinted that it would stop the activists from entering the waters around the Gaza Strip, but instead denied them a “media confrontation on the high seas” by allowing the vessels to reach land.
“We didn’t want this media provocation at sea,” Mekel said by telephone. “We knew already who was coming [and that there were] no weapons on board, only a small amount of equipment for the hearing impaired.”
The group set sail from Cyprus on Friday with 200 hearing aids for children as well as 5,000 balloons.
Halper said he plans to leave the Gaza Strip on Tuesday by the Erez land crossing from the Gaza Strip directly into Israel. That crossing is currently open only to journalists, international aid workers and Palestinian humanitarian cases.
Halper said he doesn’t believe that Israel can keep him out, although he admitted that he could be arrested. Israelis are not allowed inside the Gaza Strip for security reasons. He also said that one of the boats would attempt to leave Gaza soon, carrying 10 Palestinian students who want to study abroad.
Mekel said no decision has been made yet on whether to allow Halper to enter Israel or whether to allow the activists to leave by sea with Palestinian passengers.
Getting in is one thing, getting out is another, Mekel said. The fact that they were allowed in does not set a precedent, he added.
The Free Gaza Movement says it has dozens of backers from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa and Australia, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan.
Some of the participants are associated with the International Solidarity Movement, several chapters of which are also backing the mission. ISM is considered an anti-Israel movement.