HAIFA, Israel — Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists, including a Nobel laureate and a Holocaust survivor, set sail Sunday for the Gaza Strip, edging closer to an expected naval showdown with Israeli gunships determined to stop them.
Huwaida Arraf, one of the organizers, said the six-ship flotilla began the journey from international waters off the coast of Cyprus in the afternoon after two days of delays. She said they expected to reach Gaza, about 250 miles away, on Monday afternoon, and that two more ships would follow in "a second wave."
The flotilla was "fully prepared for the different scenarios" that might arise, and organizers were hopeful that Israeli authorities would "do what's right" and not stop the convoy, she said.
"We fully intend to go to Gaza regardless of any intimidation or threats of violence against us," she said. "They are going to have to forcefully stop us."
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After nightfall, three Israeli navy missile boats left their base in Haifa, steaming out to sea to confront the activists' ships.
Two hours later, Israel Radio broadcast a recording of one of the missile boats warning the flotilla not to approach Gaza.
"If you ignore this order and enter the blockaded area, the Israeli navy will be forced to take all the necessary measures in order to enforce this blockade," the radio message continued.
The flotilla, which includes three cargo ships and three passenger ships, is trying to draw attention to Israel's three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. The boats are carrying items that Israel bars from reaching Gaza, like cement and other building materials. The activists said they also were carrying hundreds of electric-powered wheelchairs, prefabricated homes and water purifiers.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that after a security check, permitted humanitarian aid confiscated from the boats will be transferred to Gaza through authorized channels. However, Israel would not transfer items it has banned from Gaza under its blockade rules. Palmor said that, for example, cement would be allowed only if it is tied to a specific project.
This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008.