Andra Jackson, The Age, 25 August 2008
Two peace ships organised by a Melbourne man, Michael Shaik, have broken through Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The ships, the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty, set out from Cyprus on Friday with dozens of human rights activists from around the world, carrying children's hearing aids to the Palestinian territory.
Two years of planning went into running the blockade after Mr Shaik came up with the idea of challenging Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement and access to basic services.
Israel, with US backing and Egyptian help, has controlled entry and exit from Gaza since its withdrawal in 2005, but virtually sealed off its 1.5 million people last summer after the militant Islamists Hamas put down a Fatah coup attempt.
Those on the Greek-flagged ships included Eliza Ernshire, 32, of Newcastle, NSW, Israeli human rights activist Jeff Halper and journalist Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British prime minister and current Middle East envoy Tony Blair.
"We will surely try to bring the boats back again," activist Huwaida Arraf said. "The goal is to open a route between Cyprus and Gaza. People here are just ecstatic to see that someone cares."
At one stage on the 30-hour trip the navigation and communications systems on both ships failed. Some activists accused Israel of jamming the systems, which Israel denied.
But despite the Israeli authorities warning it would treat them as pirates, the ships were allowed to enter Gaza's harbour.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said: "They wanted provocation at sea, but they won't get it. We know who the passengers are and what they are bringing with them and so we have no problem letting them through."
A 2000-strong crowd turned out to greet the ships as they sailed into Gaza Port on Saturday night.
Speaking to London's Times , Ms Booth challenged Mr Blair to "show some guts" and visit Gaza to witness the suffering of its inhabitants.
Mr Shaik, 39, a former Defence Department employee and now a full-time advocate for the Melbourne-based lobby group Australians for Palestine, yesterday hailed the ships' arrival as "a great victory for human rights and international law".
"Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip is one of the great crimes of the 21st century, which the governments of the West and the Arab League are abetting by their silence," he said.
Thousands of activists from around the world have so far raised $70,000 towards the purchase of the ships, which would be retained to take goods to and from Gaza, Mr Shaik said.
With LOS ANGELES TIMES