VATICAN CITY - The Vatican came under fire from Israel Friday after signing a historic first accord with Palestine, two years after officially recognising it as a state.

The accord, which covers the activities of the Church in the parts of the Holy Land under Palestinian control, was the first since the Vatican recognised Palestine as a state in February 2013.

The product of 15 years of discussions, the agreement was finalised in principle last month despite Israel’s opposition to both the symbolism of Palestine signing international accords and the specific content of the agreement.

“This hasty step damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement, and harms the international effort to convince the Palestinian Authority to return to direct negotiations with Israel,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in a statement.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Maliki said at Friday’s signing ceremony that it would “not have been possible without the blessing of his Holiness Pope Francis for our efforts to reach it”.

The minister said the “historic” accord enshrined Palestine’s special status as the birthplace of Christianity and the cradle of the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism).

Paul Gallagher, the British archbishop who is the Vatican’s de facto foreign minister, signed the accord on behalf of the Holy See in the presence of guests including Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem, the Palestinian town considered to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Gallagher said the accord’s provisions to ensure the rights of Christians should serve as a model for other Arab and Muslim states in their relations with Christian minorities facing increasing persecution in the Middle East.

He said it was “indicative of the progress made by the Palestinian Authority in recent years, and above all of the level of international support (for recognition)”.

“In this context, it is my hope that the present agreement may in some way be a stimulus to bringing a definitive end to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to cause suffering for both Parties.

“I also hope that the much desired two-State solution may become a reality as soon as possible. The peace process can move forward only if it is directly negotiated between the parties, with the support of the international community,” Gallagher said.

“This certainly requires courageous decisions, but it will also offer a major contribution to peace and stability in the region.”

The Vatican’s recognition of the state of Palestine followed a November 2012 vote in favour of recognition by the UN General Assembly.

The Palestinian Authority considers the Vatican one of 136 states to have recognised Palestine’s sovereign status, although the number is disputed and several recognitions by what are now European Union member states date back to the Soviet era.

The Vatican has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1993 but has yet to conclude an accord on the Church’s rights in the Jewish state which has been under discussion since 1999, with issues related to the status of Jerusalem proving hard to overcome.

Nahshon said the Vatican-Palestinian accord contained “one sided texts” which “ignore the historic rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and to the places holy to Judaism in Jerusalem”.

He added: “Israel will study the agreement in detail, and its implications for future cooperation between Israel and the Vatican.”

Meanwhile, activists set sail Friday for the Gaza Strip in a bid to break Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian territory, a participant said, five years after a similar attempt ended in bloodshed.

“Finally, we are aboard the Swedish freedom boat the Marianne, and we are on our way to Gaza,” Arab Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas announced on his Facebook page before the flotilla left the coast of Crete.

The Marianne of Gothenburg is part of the so-called Freedom Flotilla III - a convoy of ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists including Ghattas, a former Tunisian president and at least one European lawmaker.

In a similar bid in 2010, a botched pre-dawn raid by Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists.

Several attempts since then have all been thwarted, but without bloodshed.

The Marianne of Gothenburg last month sailed from Sweden to waters off Crete, where it was to be joined by a number of other vessels carrying around 70 people, according to the Platform of French NGOs for Palestine.

Another activist on the Marianne, Israeli-born Swede Dror Feiler, told an Arab Israeli radio station that one of the flotilla’s ships had been sabotaged by “professionals”, and that a propeller had to be fixed before setting off.

“There are dark forces that are trying to stop us,” he told Radio Ashams, without elaborating.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely last week called the flotilla “the work of provocateurs whose aim is to blacken Israel’s face”.

The ministry had been working “through diplomatic channels night and day” to prevent it from reaching Israeli waters, she said.

A statement Friday from the flotilla’s media team said its goal was “to highlight the violation of the rights of 1.8 million Palestinians living in the world’s largest open-air prison.”

In July-August 2014, a 50-day war between Israel and Gaza rulers Hamas - the blockaded territory’s third conflict in six years - killed 2,200 Palestinians and 73 on the Israeli side, and left 100,000 Gazans homeless.

Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza in 2006 after Hamas captured an Israeli soldier, and tightened it a year later when the Islamist movement consolidated control of the Strip.

A number of flotillas had reached Gaza prior to May 2010, when 10 Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed in the Israeli raid on the six-ship flotilla.

Since then, several ships manned by pro-Palestinian activists have tried to reach the shores of Gaza, but they have all been repelled by the Israeli navy.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday he believed “a flotilla will not help to address the dire situation in Gaza,” but reiterated his call on Israel to “lift all closures, with due consideration of Israel’s legitimate security concerns.”

Aboard the flotilla, according to organisers, were former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki and Spanish MEP Ana Maria Miranda Paza.