Kerem Shalom, Israel // Responding to a diplomatic furore over Israel's raid on the humanitarian flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip on Monday, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) announced yesterday it will begin transferring to the embattled Palestinian territory some of the 10,000 tonnes of aid carried on the seized cargo vessels. But Hamas officials, speaking from Gaza, refused to accept the aid until the hundreds of foreign activists detained in the operation and being held in Beersheva prison in southern Israel are released, according to media reports from Gaza.
Hamas will accept the aid "only if the shipments are complete and when Israel release all activists who were onboard the ships", Ziad al Zaza, Hamas's minister of economy, said, according to wire service reports. Israeli officials said they began the transfer yesterday of some medical supplies, and will allow the transfer of clothing and toys, but refused to comment on whether or not they would permit the import of thousands of tonnes of cement also on board the ship.
Goods are being off-loaded, identified and undergoing Israeli "security checks", an official with the Israeli military said at a briefing at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. After the checks, items will be either rejected or approved for transfer to the Gaza Strip. "The [Israeli] government has begun unloading the cargo of three of the ships that were part of the illegal flotilla that tried to sail to the Gaza Strip," Uri Singer, the head of the foreign relations branch of Israel's Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, said the briefing.
"The goods arrived without any [purchase] order or manifest," he continued. "We need to understand first what is on the ships, and then we will process and send the goods according to Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip." Gaza has been held under a tight Israeli blockade for three years, since Hamas, a bitter enemy of Israel, seized power there in 2007. Israel has strictly limited the amount of goods, fuel and construction materials that enter the territory in an attempt to weaken the Islamists, but arbitrarily banning items such as chocolate and coriander as "luxury goods".
Israel has hinted it would loosen the blockade if Hamas were to release Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 2006. Israel had offered, prior to the flotilla's departure, to transport the cargo through its own crossings with Gaza and via the United Nations, but the foreign activists refused, saying the goods they carried, including cement, water-purification systems and notebook paper, are specifically banned for import by Israeli authorities.
"All of the stuff we have, all of it at one time or another has been prohibited from entering Gaza," said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, in Cyprus this week. But getting the goods into Gaza was not the only aim, organisers said. It was also about challenging Israel's claim that it no longer occupies Gaza - Israel withdrew its forces in 2005, but still controls the enclave's land borders, territorial waters and airspace - while maintaining a strict economic blockade.
"We want to make a statement to say: 'Gazans have the right to live like we do,'" Mrs Berlin said, "and to have access to their own borders." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org