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The Guardian: Cherie Blair’s sister joins battle to break Gaza blockade

By Rachel Williams

To view original article, published by The Guardian on the 5th August, click here

A group of activists including Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth plans to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip by sailing into the Palestinian territory.

Some 46 campaigners, among them several Britons, a Holocaust survivor and an 81-year-old retired Catholic nun from the US, will make the 241-mile crossing from Cyprus in two wooden vessels at the end of the week, carrying medical supplies. The journey takes about 20 hours.

The California-based Free Gaza movement wants to open unrestricted international access to Gaza while delivering a “symbolic” shipment of 200 hearing aids and batteries for a society for deaf children and other supplies such as painkillers. Organisers say they will not pass through Israeli waters and have therefore not notified Israeli authorities of their plans.

But they are prepared for the 21-metre (70ft) Free Gaza and 18-metre Liberty to encounter resistance. The Gaza Strip’s waters are patrolled by the Israeli navy. The boats’ crews will cover as much of the journey as possible under sail to conserve fuel, so they can stay at sea as long as possible if their progress is blocked, British campaigner Hilary Smith said.

“The passengers are prepared to remain on board for weeks or longer if their passage is impeded,” she told a press conference in London. “Gaza is a virtual prison for well over a million Palestinians. It’s been under siege almost continuously for two years. Israel says it no longer occupies the Gaza Strip so the boat will not be asking permission from Israel and will not allow Israel to board the boats.”

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza last year after Hamas took control, and allows limited supplies of food, fuel and aid into the territory. In March a coalition of eight UK human rights groups said Gazans were living through their worst humanitarian crisis since the 1967 war.

Dr Mona El Farra, director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Gaza, said she knew of at least 226 patients who had died since the siege was imposed, 55 of them children, and 1,500 patients were waiting for treatment. “As a doctor there is nothing more sad for me than watching my patients dying,” she said.

Free Gaza said the boats would be inspected by an independent security service, to prove that no weapons or dangerous substances were on board. The group hopes to transport a group of young Fulbright scholars out of the territory so they can pursue their studies abroad, and return some exiled Gaza residents.

Another aim, ultimately, is to create a permanent maritime link between Cyprus and Gaza. “This is not a one-time symbolic trip,” said Israeli organiser Jeff Halper. “The idea is when we get to Gaza we have broken the siege.”

Blair is yet to visit Gaza in his role as the Quartet envoy working on Palestinian economic development. Last month a planned trip was cancelled after what his spokeswoman described as threats made against him.