Aid ships set to defy Gaza blockade


A convoy of ships containing pro-Palestinian activists and aid destined for the blockaded Gaza Strip have left Cyprus and are sailing towards Israeli naval vessels determined to stop them.

The vessels – from Ireland, Britain, Sweden and Greece – plan to take to Gaza 10,000 tonnes of construction material, medical equipment and school supplies, along with 750-800 politicians, human rights workers and political activists from 40 countries.

Among the Irish nationals due to make the voyage were Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire, Dublin TDs Chris Andrews and Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Senator Mark Daly from Kerry. However, Cypriot authorities prevented the delegation of parliamentarians from leaving the island join the flotilla.

The flotilla is expected to arrive in Gaza tomorrow afternoon.

In addition to essential goods for the reconstruction and health sectors, the vessels are carrying children’s toys, clothing and chocolate, all of which are not on the list of 81 items allowed into Gaza by the Israeli authorities.

The ships, led by a Turkish vessel carrying 600 people, left a muster point in international waters off Cyprus early today. There is no estimated time for arrival in Gaza, which lies some 230 miles southeast of Cyprus.

"The flotilla is together and is on the move," said Greta Berlin, spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, one of the organisers.

Israel has already said it will prevent the convoy from reaching Hamas-ruled Gaza, a sliver of desert territory which Israel has blockaded for three years.

Israeli naval commandos have held drills to practise boarding and searching the ships. Activists face arrest and deportation, and their cargo will be confiscated for possible transfer by Israel to Gaza, Israeli military officials said.

Berlin said Israel risked a public relations disaster if it tried to intercept the activists. "The only scenario which makes any sense is for them to stop being the bully of the Middle East and let us go through," she said.

The flotilla was organised by pro-Palestinian groups and a Turkish human rights organisation. Turkey has urged Israel to allow it safe passage and say the aid is humanitarian.

Turkey is one of Israel's closest allies in the Middle East but relations have soured. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has frequently criticised the Jewish state's policies toward the Palestinians.

Israel and neighbouring Egypt closed Gaza's borders after Islamist Hamas, which rejects the Jewish state, took over the territory in 2007. Tension has remained high since Israel's devastating December 2008-January 2009 offensive in Gaza.

Gaza's people, many of whom rely on United Nations aid, suffer shortages of water and medicine. Israel has set up a holding camp for activists at the coastal city of Ashdod and said that any aid should be handed over for screening before being distributed in Gaza through Israeli-approved channels.