NICOSIA (Reuters) - A six-ship convoy carrying aid for Palestinians prepared to set sail for Gaza on Sunday in defiance of an Israeli-led blockade on the impoverished territory and warnings that it would be intercepted.
The ships, led by a Turkish vessel with 600 people on board, were anchored in international waters off Cyprus. Organisers had said that the ships had set sail but they later said the convoy had moved 25 nautical miles from its initial position and was now stationary.
“It was a strategic decision to move,” said Greta Berlin, a 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 practice 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 have 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 says the 10,000 tonnes of aid the convoy is carrying is humanitarian.
Muslim 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 towards 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.
Reporting by Michele Kambas, editing by Elizabeth Fullerton