NICOSIA // Tony Blair, the international community's Middle East envoy responsible for improving Palestinian economic development, has been urged by his feisty sister-in-law to "show some guts" and visit Gaza to witness the suffering of its people in person. Lauren Booth, a half-sister of Cherie Blair, is among a group of 36 rights activists from more than a dozen countries who plan to sail in two boats from Cyprus to Gaza in the coming days.
Organisers of the Free Gaza Movement (freegaza.org) said the aim is to break Israel's "absolutely illegal siege" of the Palestinian territory - a "prison-like enclosure" - and set a precedent that will establish a permanent sea-link to Gaza. Israel, whose navy polices a self-declared "special security zone" off Gaza's coastline, has given no indication of how it will respond to the challenge, but the activists fear their mission will face intimidation and disruption.
Ms Booth, a broadcaster and journalist, said in an interview with The National: "I'd like to say to him [Blair] if I've got the guts to go, you should have the honour to go. Show some guts. You're supposed to be representing these people as well. Lip-service to the suffering of the Gazans without witnessing it at first hand makes a mockery of his [Blair's] role." Mr Blair, a former British prime minister, has yet to visit Gaza in his role as the Quartet's Middle East envoy, representing the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations.
He abruptly cancelled a planned trip there last month after Israel's Shin Bet security service said he might come under attack. Hamas, which controls Gaza, said it had done its utmost to ensure his visit was well-secured and accused Israel of sabotaging his trip to keep the territory under pressure and isolated. The 36 civilian passengers due to sail to Gaza range in age from 22 to 83, speak 12 languages among them and include teachers, doctors, journalists, musicians and students. Twelve are Americans, including an 81-year-old Catholic nun. Seven are British, among them a Scottish philosophy graduate who plays online poker for a living.
Another is Yvonne Ridley, 49, a former British Sunday newspaper journalist who converted to Islam after making global headlines when she was captured by the Taliban during an undercover assignment in Afghanistan in 2001. She is reporting on the expedition for Press TV, Iran's English-language news channel and keeps a diary of the event - titled "Dicing with death for Gaza" - on the station's website (presstv.com).
"We have spent the past week training in non-violent resistance techniques, and while I freely admit that a few of us have fears and concerns, every one of us is determined not to be intimidated or bullied by Israel," she wrote. Because the expedition's boats, the 21-metre Free Gaza and the 18-metre Liberty, will not pass through Israeli waters, organisers said there is no need to inform the Israeli authorities. "Israel claims to no longer occupy Gaza, so why would they object?" said Paul Larudee, one of the expedition's American organisers.
However, the Free Gaza Movement, an international coalition of activists who know each other mainly from projects helping Palestinian civilians, has issued an open invitation to Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, to join their expedition. The invitation acknowledges that the voyage "may seem to be a quixotic endeavour". But the trip would enable Ms Livni "to see firsthand the horrific effects of Israeli policies" on Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians, "as well as to witness firsthand the effectiveness of non-violent action in bringing about positive change".
Ms Livni is not expected to reply. Among other reservations, she is unlikely to be impressed that one of the boats has been named after the USS Liberty, an American navy surveillance ship that was attacked off the Egyptian coast by Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats during the 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli War. Thirty-four American crew members were killed and at least 170 injured. Inquiries conducted by the US and Israeli governments concluded the attack was a tragic friendly fire accident, although some, including survivors, claim it was premeditated and that the truth has been suppressed.
"We've had a letter of support from the survivors [of the USS Liberty]," said Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a Jerusalem-based Israeli-British dual national who is one of the expedition's spokesmen. The organisers are arranging for the Cypriot authorities to check thoroughly the two boats before they sail to confirm they are carrying only civilians on a human rights mission. "We don't go till we get a clean bill of health. We have nothing more dangerous on board than 5,000 biodegradable balloons that say 'Free Palestine' on them," said Greta Berlin, another American organiser. The captains of both boats are Irish.
Gazans, in turn, have planned a rapturous reception if the activists succeed. Dozens of boats will welcome them at the coast while thousands of Palestinians will cheer from the beaches. But Ms Booth believes there is little chance she and the other passengers will make it to Gaza. "Politically, it would mean the end of the blockade, and I can't see Israel allowing it to happen," she said. "They [Israel] made a big brouhaha about withdrawing from Gaza, but of course they haven't."
Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but imposed an economic blockade on the territory last year after Hamas seized control from Fatah, and in response to rocket attacks on southern Israel by Palestinian militants. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org