NICOSIA (Reuters) – Activists seeking to challenge Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza were struggling with rough seas and disruptions to their communications, the group said on Saturday.
The 44 “Free Gaza” activists from 17 nations set out on Friday from Cyprus in two wooden boats. They expected to complete the 240 nautical mile journey and reach Gaza’s coastline, which is patrolled by the Israeli navy, on Saturday.
Among those making the trip to highlight poor living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza, was the sister-in-law of Middle East peace envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair and an 81-year-old American nun.
A spokeswoman for the group in Jerusalem said she had managed to make brief contact by satellite phone with one of the boats and the coordinates she had received placed them about 70 km (45 miles) off the coastline of Gaza City.
Ramzi Kyzia, a group activist in Cyprus, said contact had eventually been made with the boats after a long period of silence, and that all aboard were safe. Earlier he said the boats were “victims of electronic piracy.”
“We have been able to speak to the boat; everyone’s fine. The seas are a bit rough and the primary navigational systems are still not working, but we have back up.
“They are beginning their approach into Palestinian waters,” Kyzia said.
An Israeli official in Jerusalem said he was unaware of any action being taken against the boats’ communications.
“We are following developments, and if they are looking for a provocation we will know how to avoid this,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel told Reuters.
Officials of the militant Islamic movement Hamas in Gaza said 13 boats that had put to sea aiming to greet the activists were forced to turn back by Israeli naval craft which fired shots in the air.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said no naval vessel had fired in the area.
Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but has tightened restrictions on the territory since Hamas seized control there last year from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces
Israel and Hamas agreed a ceasefire in June. It calls on both sides to stop cross border violence and on Israel to ease its blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The truce has largely held, although Gaza militants have fired rockets into Israel and the Jewish state has periodically closed its borders with the coastal enclave.