Short boats into Gaza with fact-finding mission

Clare Short's posture said it all. The former Labour Cabinet minister sat on her own, motionless and slouched in her chair, staring into the sea behind the vessel carrying her, narrowly avoiding being soaked in the spray from its wake.

It is not the most conventional means for a politician to travel. The tiny boat had spent over half a day crossing the Mediterranean from Larnaca, Cyprus, to the Gaza Strip early last weekend, transporting a delegation of 11 members of parliament from five European countries to see worsening conditions in the Palestinian territory. Here, few if any goods and people come and go, the result of huge restrictions on border crossings imposed over the last 18 months by the Israeli government. The group of politicians said that by coming by boat without the cooperation of Israel it had "broken the siege" on Gaza.

The delegation, which also included peers Lord Nazir Ahmed and Baroness Jenny Tonge, as well as members of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish parliaments, made the journey after being refused entry to Gaza through Egypt last month. The trip, which was billed as a fact-finding mission, included a private meeting with Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Islamist movement Hamas, which was democratically elected as part of a coalition government in 2006. The group took control of the Strip by force in June last year. Israel classifies Hamas as a terrorist organisation and imposed its blockade after it gained power.

Speaking on Saturday to members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ms Short said: "Obviously by coming in boats we are all saying the siege is wrong, Israel is wrong and its breach of international law is a collective punishment. The siege is being put upon [Gaza's inhabitants] because the Palestinian people dared to vote for people they wanted to vote for, and that is total Western hypocrisy on the issue of democracy.

"And I want to apologise to [the people] for the position of my government and the European Union regarding their policies towards the siege and not being able to recognise the result of a proper election. I also would like to pay my own respects to all the Palestinian people, but particularly the people on the ground, for the way they have resisted this injustice. I am most interested in hearing from them on how they see the way forward. I think Western policy is in big trouble. It has hit a series of cul-de-sacs, it has big problems. " Neither the British government nor the European Union officially recognise the Hamas-controlled administration.

The journey from Cyprus was organised by human rights organisation Free Gaza, founded in United States in 2006 by five peace activists. The group has already sent two other boats to Gaza this year; one earlier this month and another in August, both carrying activists and charity workers. On the first trip, the Israeli government threatened to arrest its passengers but has put up little resistance since, preferring to avoid any confrontation that could give rise to publicity. On this latest excursion, Israeli authorities contacted the group before their departure and accused them of "meeting with terrorists" but made no other contact.

The group's journey began at 5pm on Friday. The delegation boarded the Dignity, their vessel, at Larnaca's main port. The area wears its affluence on its sleeve. Luxury apartment blocks overlook the shore, where a smattering of huge private yachts are berthed. A small collection of press and photographers attended, to photograph members of the charity as they adorned their boat with the national flags of its passengers.

During the 13-hour overnight trip, the 23 passengers on board jostled for places in the boat's six bunks. The rest had to make do with sleeping on the ship's deck, or a small internal living space. With Ms Short retiring early, Lord Ahmed and Ms Tonge stayed up later to chat with the other members of the delegation. Ahmed said he was "excited about making history," while Tonge, a trained doctor, said she was more philosophical about the journey.

At 6am, a Israeli patrol boat appeared at some distance to shadow the vessel, not straying out of its own waters. As land neared, several fishing boats were sighted, containing dozens of passengers, some carrying television cameras. One sailed up alongside the delegation's boat, colliding with it briefly, long enough for around ten Palestinians to rush on board to try to conduct interviews. Approaching Gaza, the Strip seemed to be surrounded by a pall of smoke, which a member of the ship's crew said was generated by burning rubbish which is the only way to dispose of it.

Gaza's principal dock contained large amounts of barbed wire, old gunboats, derelict buildings, and walls adorned with political graffiti. Here a crowd several hundred strong, mainly local journalists, met the delegation. After a brief press conference the group moved with heavy security to one of the town's most upmarket hotels, outside which machine-gun-carrying members of the government's security service stood guard.

Saturday was spent meeting members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Lord Ahmed spoke in front of pictures of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to assembled Palestinian parliamentarians. There was then a tour of Naser children's hospital, the Strip's only facility of its kind. One wing, which only has two full-time doctors serving in it, is expected to treat up to scores of children a day. Medics working there said planned expansion works were halted by the Israeli blockade. Dr Ahmed Al-kashif, director general of Gaza's hospital said that medicines and replacement medical equipment are in drastically short supply, as they are not allowed to enter in sufficient quantities through Gaza's borders. Specialist paediatrician Ahmed Mortaji added: "We need more medication and we need more room. In addition, some of the wards in which people are being treated are around 40 years old. We cannot serve the number of people we need to serve with such limited space."

Last stop was a meeting with Mr Haniyeh. "This visit shows the world we are not here alone in Gaza” he said. “Many of the free world are standing alongside our cause here in Palestine. When we listen to Clare Short she is speaking for the Palestinian cause just like Palestinian people. We felt so bad when you were prevented from entering via Egypt. But your strong will has shown us that your steadfastness can succeed in achieving your goals. The first democratic election here was an honour for the people of Palestine. It was free and transparent which was carried out with the support of the majority of the Palestinian people. I urge governments around the world...to urge that the siege be lifted."

The delegation spent yesterday with the United Nations touring refugee camps around Gaza. It is expected to leave Gaza on the Dignity this evening, arriving back in Larnaca tomorrow morning. Another boat organised by Free Gaza is expected to travel to Gaza next month.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links