NICOSIA (Reuters) - Pro-Palestinian activists vowed to press ahead and break an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip on Thursday by sending in a convoy of aid ships despite Israeli warnings it will be stopped.
Eight ships, including four cargo vessels and a Turkish passenger ferry carrying 600 people, were heading toward Gaza in defiance of a three-year Israeli closure on the sliver of desert territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians.
“We are planning on going. This is not going to stop us. The boats are already on their way,” said Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement.
Israel criticized the activists for what it described as a propaganda stunt, while Turkey urged Israeli authorities to treat the convoy as humanitarian aid. A Turkish human rights group is one of the organizers.
The boats would converge at a meeting point in international waters east of Cyprus, probably late on Friday, and then head across the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea toward Gaza, Berlin told Reuters.
Israel has urged the convoy to turn back, saying its navy was prepared to intercept it. Israel says relief aid is already flowing into Gaza though approved channels.
“If they were really interested in the wellbeing of the people of Gaza, they would have accepted the offers of Egypt or Israel to transfer humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.
“Instead they have chosen a cheap political stunt,” he said, referring to the activists.
Israeli naval commandos have held drills in preparation for boarding and searching the convoy. Activists faced arrest and deportation, and their cargo would be confiscated for possible transfer by Israel to Gaza, Israeli military officials said.
Israel had set up a temporary holding camp with tents for passengers of the flotilla in the coastal city of Ashdod, where it has urged activists to sail to and hand over their cargos for screening. A Turkish human rights organization has chartered one passenger ferry. The Turkish government was not involved in the mission, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
“We don’t want new tensions in the region...Problems can be avoided if this aid package is seen as humanitarian aid,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Burak Ozugergin said.
Muslim Turkey is one of Israel’s closest allies in the Middle East but relations have soured in part due to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s frequent criticism of the Jewish state’s policies toward the Palestinians.
Israel and neighboring Egypt closed Gaza’s borders after Islamist Hamas, which rejects the Jewish state, took over the territory in 2007. Tensions have run especially high since the December 2008-January 2009 war between Hamas and Israel.
Gaza’s people, many of them United Nations aid recipients, suffer shortages of water and medicine.
The Free Gaza Movement first started sending aid directly into Gaza in August 2008. They have been intercepted on three occasions.
The convoys would be taking in 10,000 tonnes of supplies, including cement — a material Israel bans, citing fears Hamas could use it to construct bunkers — as well as water purification kits, pre-fabricated homes and medical equipment.
In recent weeks Israel has allowed some goods it used to ban, such as clothes, shoes, wood and aluminum, to enter the strip through land border crossings. It continues to allow a steady flow of humanitarian aid into the coastal territory.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Maria Golovnina