LARNACA, CYPRUS // Britain is braced for an unwelcome diplomatic spat with Israel today if Israeli navy gunboats forcibly prevent civilian activists determined to break the "brutal blockade" of the Gaza Strip from reaching the impoverished Palestinian territory on board a Gibraltar-flagged yacht. If registered in the British overseas territory, the spanking new, 21m Dignity would be no different to one registered in the United Kingdom, British officials said in an interview. That means there could be a diplomatic row if the Israeli navy fires warning shots, boards the vessel or detains its passengers and crew. Israel has decided at the "highest governmental levels" to prevent the "far left-wing protesters" from reaching Gaza, the Jerusalem Post said. An incident would be averted, however, if the Dignity simply turned around if confronted. But a spokesman for the Free Gaza Movement said the activists would resist any such challenge. "We will not turn around," said Greta Berlin, one of the mission's US organisers. "We will negotiate as much as possible and we will let the media know that Israel is using a gunboat against non-violent citizens." All passengers have been trained in non-violent resistance techniques and have experience of dealing with the Israeli army and navy, she said. The Dignity, skippered by a Briton, set sail from Larnaca port in Cyprus last night and is due to enter Gazan waters this morning with 27 high-spirited passengers and crew from 13 countries, including six Britons. An Italian tenor among the activists burst into exuberant song as the yacht left the quay in Larnaca under stormy skies. On board are Mairead Maguire, the winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland, five doctors, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. A clearly concerned foreign office spokesperson told The National by e-mail: "We have strongly advised all British nationals? that travel to Gaza would be reckless at this time, that we can only offer limited consular access while they are in Gaza and that if they enter Gaza successfully, they may have to face lengthy delays in getting out - if at all." She added: "We have also told the Israeli government that we take the safety of our nationals seriously and will continue to monitor the situation closely." The yacht is flying the Gibraltar flag as a matter of convenience because it was already registered there, a Free Gaza Movement spokesman said. It originally had not crossed the organisers' minds that the flag would place a diplomatic burden on Britain, but it was welcome if it did, she said. The Dignity's captain, Denis Healey, a 53-year-old Cyprus-based marine engineer from Portsmouth, scoured Larnaca yesterday morning for a bigger Gibraltarian flag. "I'm hoping it will give us a bit more protection," he said. The yacht will sail from Cypriot waters into international ones, avoiding Israeli waters before it enters those of the Gaza Strip, which are policed by the Israeli navy. "We will not be going anywhere near Israeli waters and therefore Israel does not have any legal right to violently disrupt our mission," said Huwaida Arraf, a spokesman for the movement and a law lecturer at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. The Dignity is determined to build on a precedent set in August when two Free Gaza Movement protest boats made it to the Strip. Israel had warned the activists to stay clear but eventually made no attempt to disrupt their mission after Tel Aviv accepted that they posed no security threat and that intercepting them would bring negative publicity. Among those who sailed in August was Lauren Booth, a journalist and a sister-in-law of Tony Blair, the former British premier who is now the Middle East peace envoy for the UN. The success of the August mission, undertaken in two ramshackle boats, generated sufficient funds from well-wishers around the world for the Free Gaza Movement to buy the Dignity, organisers said. The Jerusalem Post said the Israeli authorities had decided to intercept the Dignity because August's activists were used for propaganda by Hamas, which controls Gaza. Mrs Maguire addressed that criticism in an interview with The National. "In Northern Ireland if we hadn't spoken to everyone and called for dialogue we wouldn't have our peace deal now," she said. "Unconditional, all-inclusive talks were the way forward and are the only forward for the Israelis and Palestinians. It must be recognised that Hamas is the elected representative of the Palestinian people. They must be included in the way forward." The activists on Saturday invited Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, and Aharon Abramovitz, the director general of its foreign ministry, to join their voyage so they could "witness the draconian effects of Israel's policies on the civilian population of the occupied Gaza Strip". That invitation was extended yesterday to any Knesset member in language even more certain to guarantee there would be no takers. "If you wish to educate yourself on the devastating effects of Israel's genocidal policies of collective punishment against the families of the Gaza Strip, join us in breaking this brutal siege? and witness at first hand what Israeli violence has done to the civilian population of Gaza," a Free Gaza press release said. The yacht, given security clearance by Cypriot port authorities before sailing, is carrying six cubic metres of "urgently needed" medical supplies. But its main purpose is to highlight the plight of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians and set another stepping stone towards a permanent sea bridge between Cyprus and Gaza. Mrs Maguire has not been to Gaza before but has visited Israel and the West Bank on many occasions. While she was participating in a protest against the building of the West Bank barrier near a Palestinian village in April last year Israeli security forces intervened and she needed medical treatment after being hit by a rubber-coated steel bullet and inhaling tear gas. A report by leading British-based aid agencies last month painted a dire picture of the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. Mrs Maguire, a 64-year-old grandmother of five, said: "It's a humanitarian crisis on a huge scale, it's one of the greatest tragedies in the world, yet the world doesn't seem to know what's happening." She added: "I'm going because I'm concerned about the people of Gaza, particularly the children. It's like a prison with Israel holding all the keys to the doors." email@example.com
Activists set sail to break blockade of Gaza Strip
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