A flotilla of nine vessels carrying 800 people and 10,000 tonnes of aid will set sail on Wednesday to Gaza to deliver desperately needed aid to the people of the besieged strip that has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007, when Hamas took over.
The ‘Freedom Flotilla', organised by a coalition of humanitarian organisations, will set sail from Ireland and Turkey and is expected to make stops in Cyprus and Greece tomorrow before sailing to Gaza.
On board are hundreds of volunteers as well as journalists, activists and lawmakers from Europe.
Israel has issued strict warnings to the organisers on attempting to breach the naval blockade of the strip that has been in place since January 2009, following Israel's war on Gaza.
Last week, Israel's foreign ministry deputy director-general, Naor Gilon, told the ambassadors of Ireland, Greece, Turkey and Sweden that the mission is "a provocation and a breach of Israeli law". Gilon stated that "Israel has no intention of allowing the flotilla to enter Gaza".
Activists from those countries, as well as Malaysia, have played a major part in organising and funding the flotilla. The aid being carried includes building material such as cement and iron, as well as generators, medical equipment and even toys.
The UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in a report on Sunday that about three-quarters of the damage inflicted by Israel's war on Gaza more than a year ago had not been repaired. Half of Israel's navy has reportedly been conducting practice exercises as they prepare to stop the flotilla, and has, according to media reports, threatened to open fire on the flotilla. Since the naval blockade was enforced, no attempt at delivering aid via the sea has been successful.
In one case in December 2009, Israeli naval boats rammed into the ship carrying aid, causing significant damage to it. The ship however did not sink.
While this is the ninth attempt to deliver aid to Gaza by sea, it is much larger than previous attempts which have included boats carrying 20 to 30 people.
All previous attempts had been organised by the Cyprus-based Free Gaza Movement, but the current attempt is being organised by a number of groups, the most prominent of which is the Turkish Relief Fund (IHH), which is sending four of the nine vessels and at least 500 of the 800 passengers from 40 countries.
Some of the ships will be flying the Turkish flag. Any Israeli attack on the ships in international waters could lead to a serious diplomatic incident with Turkey, whose relations with Israel, once friendly, have deteriorated over the last 18 months since Israel's Gaza war.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed support for the flotilla, saying that breaking the "oppressive" siege of Gaza "is at the top of Turkey's list of priorities".
Israeli officials have told media that some of the ambassadors warned about the flotilla offered to help Israel in barring their citizens from entering Gaza.
So far, none of the governments whose ambassadors were warned have publicly opposed the campaign, and Ireland's ambassador in Tel Aviv has urged Israel to ensure the safety of Irish citizens who have joined the flotilla.
"We are closely monitoring the situation and urge restraint on all sides," ambassador Briefne O'Reilly was quoted as saying in Irish media. "We need to avoid escalation or confrontation to ensure a peaceful outcome which will enable the safe delivery of these humanitarian supplies."
In early May, John Ging, director of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza, threw his support behind the flotilla, calling on the international community to break the siege on the Gaza Strip by sending ships loaded with desperately needed supplies to the strip. "We believe that Israel will not intercept these vessels because the sea is open, and human rights organisations have been successful in similar previous operations proving that breaking the siege of Gaza is possible," he said.
The flotilla is expected to arrive in Gaza only days after the World Health Organisation demanded that Israel end the siege on the strip "immediately", saying that it was causing a shortage of medicines.
Ameen Abu Rasheed, founding member of the European campaign to end the siege on Gaza, said the campaign has laid down a contingency plan in the event Israeli navy intercepts the flotilla, including filing lawsuits in European courts as well as demonstrations before Israeli embassies, according to reports.
Organisers have said they are determined to enter Gaza and deliver the aid despite Israel's threats. The ships are reported to be carrying two months' supply of food.
Meanwhile, a counter flotilla of 30 boats and yachts was launched last Sunday by Israeli activists in protest of the Freedom Flotilla.
On board the "Freedom Flotilla", Gulf News sets sail on Wednesday with 800 activists and journalists from around the world in the ninth known attempt to break the illegal Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Departing from the southern Turkish city of Antalya, the largest ever convoy plans to meet in Cyprus with other vessels from Ireland and Greece, before departing for Gaza.
Braving strict Israeli warnings, the activists will attempt to deliver more than 10,000 tonnes of critical aid to the people of Gaza. It is unclear whether the Flotilla will be successful in its attempt, but Gulf News will be providing live updates throughout the journey.