A convoy of ships containing pro-Palestinian activists and aid destined for the blockaded Gaza Strip on Sunday steamed south from Cyprus towards Israeli naval vessels determined to stop them.
The five ships, carrying more than 700 passengers, are on the last leg of a high-profile mission to deliver tonnes of aid to Gaza, which has been subjected to a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.
“Five ships left Cypriot waters this morning at around 5:00 am (0200 GMT),” Audrey Bomse told AFP, adding that the fleet expected to reach Gaza territorial waters some time after 4:00 pm (1300 GMT).
Israel has slammed as “illegal” the convoy’s attempt to break its blockade on Gaza, and has naval forces at the ready to intercept the ships and detain the pro-Palestinian activists on board.
With the flotilla en route, several Israeli warships could be seen massing off the Gaza coast, an AFP photographer said.
Jamal Al-Khudari, an independent Palestinian MP who heads the Gaza-based Committee to Lift the Siege, said the convoy would stop just outside Gaza’s territorial waters and only try to dock early on Monday.
The boats will travel “in two stages,” he said: “First they will stop in international waters 30 nautical miles from (Gaza waters), and tomorrow (Monday) they will reach the shores of Gaza.”
In Gaza City, fishing boats decked with Palestinian, Turkish and Greek flags chugged out of the city’s port to greet the so-called “Freedom Flotilla” which is carrying hundreds of civilians and a handful of European MPs.
Demonstrators were also planning to release scores of balloons with pictures tied to them of children who were killed during Israel’s huge 22-day offensive against Gaza which ended in January last year.
Earlier, Bomse, legal adviser to the Free Gaza Movement, said that since the convoy set sail in the early hours, she had not been able to reach the satellite phones of any of those on board.
“We have had problems getting in touch with the boats, we have not been able to make contact with their satellite phones,” said Bomse, who is temporarily based in Cyprus. AFP was also unable to reach any of the activists on board.
Bomse said two vessels which had been due to join flotilla had been unable to set sail after sustaining damage over the weekend, in a move the convoy’s organisers claimed was “sabotage.”
“Now we are thinking of sending a second wave of boats including these two and the Rachel Corrie, which is still en route” from Ireland, she said, adding that the second convoy would probably set off around Tuesday.
“We’re going to see how the others get on-either they will reach Gaza or Israel will stop them and there will be a confrontation,” Bomse added.
The flotilla of cargo and passenger ships, which is carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid, had been due to reach the besieged Gaza Strip on Saturday.
But its departure was delayed because of technical problems affecting two of the vessels.
Israel has made clear its intention to prevent the convoy from reaching Gaza, accusing the organisers of mounting a cynical political campaign.
“This is a provocation intended to delegitimise Israel,” deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon said late on Saturday.
“If the flotilla had a genuine humanitarian goal, then its organisers should have transferred something for the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit as well,” he said of the Israeli soldier snatched by militants in 2006 and held captive by the Hamas Islamist movement which runs the enclave.
Hamas’s refusal to release Shalit is cited by Israel as one of the main reasons for imposing the economic blockade on Gaza in 2007
“Their refusal to do so clearly indicates that humanitarian issues were not their goal. We will not allow the flotilla to enter Gaza, as this is an infringement of Israel?s sovereignty,” Ayalon said.
Pro-Palestinian activists have landed in Gaza five times, with another three unsuccessful attempts since their first such voyage in August 2008. The latest is their biggest operation.
To date, the amount of aid has been largely symbolic, but organisers say this convoy is laden with 10,000 tonnes of supplies, ranging from pre-fabricated homes to pencils.