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Protesters rally for Gaza flotilla

Nov. 3, 2011 1:17 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 4, 2011 1:33 A.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Demonstrators rallied in Gaza City and Ramallah on Thursday to demand protection for a flotilla sailing to the Gaza Strip.

Two boats quietly departed from a Mediterranean port on Wednesday to bring medication to Gaza and break Israel's blockade of the enclave.

The Canadian Tahrir (Liberation) and the Irish Saoirse (Freedom) are carrying 27 people from nine countries including Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United States, organizers said.

Supporters of the flotilla plan to march on Thursday from Haidar Abdel Shafi square, past the UNESCO building in Gaza City and to the port.

"We organized this march in support of the Freedom Waves to Gaza because Israel has threatened to sabotage the boats. We are marching to show that we want them to come and to break the siege that Israel has imposed on a civilian population," said Rana Baker, a 20-year-old student.

Baker told Ma'an the ships were expected to arrive at the Gaza coast on Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, protesters in Ramallah marched from Manara square to a UN building, activists said.

They delivered a statement to UN officials calling on the world body to protect the ships, and criticizing the UN Secretary-General's statement last May that aid should be delivered to Gaza via "established channels."

"Stop treating Gaza (and Palestine as a whole) as a charity case!" the statement said, noting that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is due to Israel's policies, not lack of aid.

"In our schools, universities and through our organizations, we are taught about human rights and international law, and yet it seems like Palestinians fall into a class of people upon whom these rights don’t apply," it added.

The US-based Electronic Intifada website created a real-time map showing the locations of the two ships as they advance toward Gaza.

Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, thanked activists for their efforts.

"We in Hamas government appreciate the efforts of the two 'Freedom Ships' which are on their way to Gaza to help to end the siege over the Strip," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters TV.

"We consider the Israeli threat to these ships as an official piracy. The international community should take the responsibility to stop this piracy, and to protect all the ships who express solidarity with the strip."

Israel's military says it is prepared to stop the boats' passage.

"The Israel Navy has completed the necessary preparations in order to prevent them from reaching the Gaza Strip," a military statement said Wednesday.

The "Freedom Waves to Gaza" kept the voyage secret until now due to accusations in July that Israel tried to sabotage a previous effort, the organizers said in a statement Wednesday.

"Israel's actions in extending its illegal blockade all the way to shores of Greece required that we organize this new effort quietly," the Canadian Boat to Gaza wrote on its Twitter account.

A Turkish foreign ministry official confirmed that two boats had set sail from Turkey's southern coast, having asked for permission to go to the Greek island of Rhodes.

The official said the vessels were not Turkish-flagged, had no Turkish passengers and the captains were not Turkish.

Activists organized a major attempt to break Israel's blockade in May 2010, when a flotilla of ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara tried to sail to Gaza.

Israeli naval commandos raided the flotilla, killing nine Turkish civilians and sparking a diplomatic crisis that culminated earlier this year in Ankara expelling Israel's ambassador and suspending military ties with Israel.

A second flotilla, dubbed the Freedom Flotilla II, tried to reach Gaza in July, but several ships were sabotaged -- which activists blamed on Israel -- and the final group of boats was intercepted before arriving in Gaza.

Israel has vigorously defended its right to maintain a blockade on Gaza, which it says is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory.

AFP and Reuters contributed to this report.
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