SIEGE-BREAKING BOATS DEPART GAZA – a huge victory of people over power

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After shattering the Israeli blockade of Gaza earlier this week, the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty victoriously departed Gaza for Cyprus at 2.00pm last Thursday.

The two ships, carrying 44 human rights activists, sailed to the Gaza Strip last Saturday, August 23rd, carrying a shipment of medical supplies.

They have vowed to return to Gaza on another blockade-challenging mission.

Israel has laid siege to the Gaza Strip since June 2007, trapping 1.5 million Palestinians inside and severely limiting shipments of vital supplies of food, fuel, electricity and medicine.

Significantly, seven Palestinians who have previously been denied exit visas by Israel have joined the international human rights workers on the journey back to Cyprus.

Among the Palestinians leaving are Saed Mosleh, age 10, of Beit Hanoon, Gaza.

Saed lost his leg due to an Israeli tank shell and is leaving Gaza with his father to seek medical treatment.

Also on board are the Darwish family, who will finally be reunited with their relatives in Cyprus.

‘I can’t believe we’re finally able to leave for medical treatment,’ said Khaled Mosleh, Saed’s father. ‘This is a miracle of God.’

Nine international human rights workers will remain in Gaza to do longer-term monitoring and accompaniment.

By freely travelling to Gaza in two, small, wooden boats, the Free Gaza Movement forced the Israeli government to issue a fundamental policy change regarding their military and economic blockade of Gaza.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly announced that humanitarian and human rights missions to Gaza will no longer be stopped or threatened by Israel.

With the end of the Israeli siege of Gaza, Palestinians should be free to exercise their rights without fear of being stopped or killed by the Israeli military.

Yvonne Ridley, a journalist and member of the Free Gaza Movement, summed up her experience in Gaza by saying: ‘I missed the start of the Berlin Wall coming down by just a few days, but now I know how people felt when they tore down those first few bricks.

‘This has been a huge victory of people over power.’

To avert possible obstruction to their relief mission, the organisers of the Free Gaza Movement did not enter Israeli territorial waters, and requested an inspection from both the Gaza Port Authority when they departed, and the Cypriot authorities upon their return.

By Israel’s own admission, it has no authority to inspect the boats or the passengers when they leave Gaza.

With the collapse of the Israeli blockade, the Free Gaza Movement will quickly return to Gaza with another delegation, and are encouraging the United Nations, Arab League and international community to organise similar human rights and humanitarian efforts.

The Free Gaza Movement will continue to work to ensure that safe passage between Gaza and the outside world will remain free and open.

While in Gaza, the human rights advocates will also be attempting to cross into Israel via the Erez crossing. A Jewish Israeli activist, Jeff Halper, was arrested on Tuesday after entering Israel through the same crossing.

By so doing, the activists will highlight the suffering and indignity endured not just by Palestinians but also Egyptian civilians as border tensions rise at crossings in and out of Gaza.

This has resulted in Egyptian officials announcing they will open the Rafah crossing with the Gaza Strip this Saturday and Sunday in order to end the seven-month plight of 200 Egyptians stranded in the Strip.

Palestinian officials in Gaza confirmed that the crossing will also be open to a small number of Palestinians, especially those stranded on the Egyptian side and those in need of medical care.

The Interior Ministry of the elected Hamas-led government in Gaza will clarify soon exactly who will be allowed to cross.

The Egyptian gesture coincides with the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Two hundred Egyptian citizens, mostly women and children, have been trapped in Gaza since January after they crossed into the Strip.

Then, after Palestinians forced their way through the border in an act of popular disobedience, Egypt resealed the border, stranding its own citizens in the process.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit warned Gazans against storming the Rafah border as they did last January.

‘Who threatens Rafah and tries to storm the crossing with no approval of his country will face an unexpected response,’ rebuked Al-Gheit

In a similar development, on Thursday Israel reopened its commercial and humanitarian crossings with the Gaza Strip after two days of closure.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the reopening. Barak shut down the crossings on Monday night after a home-made projectile, allegedly fired from Gaza, landed on the Israeli side of the border.

Meanwhile, Ismail Haniya, the prime minister of the Hamas-led government in Gaza has ordered the release of 153 Palestinian detainees as a goodwill gesture before the month of Ramadan, senior officials in Gaza said on Thursday.

Islam Shahwan, the spokesperson of the security forces in Gaza, said all the detainees had received services while in prison.

‘The prisoners (benefited from) psychological and religious courses along with learning the holy Koran by heart,’ he said.

Captain Hatem Siyam, the director of Gaza central prison, said that prisoners have been cleared for release by a panel of high-ranking police officers in consultation with legal officials.

Siyam said that so-called ‘security’ detainees and those charged with major criminal offences had been excluded.

Palestinian Interior Minister Abd Ar-Razaq Al-Yahya and German Representative to the Palestinian Authority Klaus Burkhardt signed a joint agreement to establish a total of 55 new police stations in the West Bank on Thursday.

The agreement is part of a joint project of the Palestinian Interior Ministry, the European Union mission to support the Palestinian police, and the United Nations.

Five of the new police stations will be in Jenin, where the Palestinian security forces recently redeployed.

Over 80% of Palestinian police stations in the West Bank currently work out of rented buildings.

The German representative released a statement in Arabic praising ‘efforts exerted by Palestinian police in establishing a police system committed to the principles of rule of law’.

He added that Palestinian police will receive funding, training, and other forms of support.

The German government pledged 15 million euros (22 million US dollars) at a conference in support of Palestinian security and rule of law it hosted in Berlin in June.

The government says it will disburse the funds by the end of 2008.