Eclectic Group of Volunteers Cross Hamas-Ruled Gaza to Plant Wheat

A tattooed Italian trucker, middle-aged twin sisters from San Jose, Calif., a polite Scottish couple and a solemn-faced Greek hailed a cab in Gaza City, drawing stares from passers-by unused to visitors.

The party was off to southern Gaza to plant wheat with Palestinian farmers in a dangerous area near an Israeli-patrolled border.

They were among some 80 foreign volunteers who have sailed across the Mediterranean to Gaza in three trips since August, defying a closure of the Hamas-ruled territory imposed by Israel and Egypt.

The blockade-runners from the Free Gaza Movement are a motley bunch. They have included physicians, lawmakers and Yvonne Ridley, a British woman who was kidnapped by the Taliban and afterward converted to Islam.

One high-profile volunteer was Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is now the international community's Mideast peace envoy.

They bring medicines, accompany fishermen and farmers to dangerous areas, and say they want to draw attention to the hardship the blockade has inflicted on 1.4 million Gazans.

"Governments in the West are asleep," said Vittorio Arrigoni, 33, the trucker, whose black cap featured the face of Che Guevara.

Activists accompany Gaza fishermen beyond the 3-mile limit enforced by the Israeli navy. They also escort farmers to border area fields that Israel has declared off-limits because militants have launched rockets from there.

Israel's navy has not tried to stop the boats, apparently to avoid unwanted publicity. "The entry of a few people doesn't mean the blockade is off," said Andy David, a Foreign Ministry official.

Israel's patience is clearly limited. On Nov. 18, a week after their wheat-planting effort, Arrigoni and two others were arrested for going to sea with Palestinian fishermen.

After Hamas, the militant Islamic group, seized control of the territory by force in June 2007, Israel and Egypt virtually sealed Gaza. They mainly allow in humanitarian aid, rationed fuel and some commercial goods. Since early November, Israel has kept its crossings mostly sealed in response to Palestinian rocket fire. Booth, Blair's sister-in-law, was stuck in Gaza for weeks because of the closure.

The activists' presence shines a spotlight on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, said Chris Gunness, spokesman for a U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees.

They have also won praise from Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's destruction, and which cracks down on political rivals.

Activists say they are focused on the plight of ordinary Palestinians, but are aware Hamas is using their presence to legitimize its rule.

The group in the taxi traveled to the farm of Yousef Najjar, 47, in the southern Gaza village of Khuzaa. Najjar said he hadn't approached his land for two years, fearing he would be shot from an Israeli watchtower.

The visitors drew excitement and inquisitive stares -- Arrigoni with his eyebrow ring and black sleeveless shirt showing off his tattoos, Californian Donna Wallach wearing a hat emblazoned with pro-Palestinian slogans.

They walked onto Najjar's land. He followed them, strewing handfuls of wheat. An Israeli army jeep drove by along the fence but didn't stop.

Village women soon rushed to the area hauling seed sacks on donkey carts to be sowed.

But when children ran to the border fence, Israeli soldiers fired in the air, then into the soil around the farmers. Nobody was injured.

The next day, Israeli forces and Hamas militants fought a gunbattle in the same area.

Israel will likely let the activist boats keep coming, provided they carry legitimate cargo, Israeli military analyst Shlomo Brom said. "If anyone on these boats tries to do something that is not kosher, they will be stopped," he said.

Since their fishing-boat outing, Arrigoni has been deported along with Scotsman Andrew Muncie, 34. The third detainee, Darlene Wallach, 57, was to be deported Wednesday, according to her twin sister.

Activists say some of their deported colleagues will return on their boat, Dignity, which they hope will make a monthly 240-mile run from the island of Cyprus to Gaza. It's expected back in December, said organizer Greta Berlin.

Each trip costs some $38,000, but donors are generous, Berlin said.

"This kind of thing has caught the imagination of the world," she said.