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.

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