JERUSALEM (AP) – Ships carrying 10,000 tons of supplies and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to blockaded Gaza were being held up near Cyprus on Saturday, as organizers tried to get nearly two dozen high-profile supporters on board.
The flotilla was to set sail toward Gaza on Saturday afternoon, in any event, and approach the territory on Sunday, about 24 hours behind schedule, said Greta Berlin, one of the activists.
A showdown with the Israeli navy appeared inevitable. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, reiterated Saturday that the ships would be intercepted, denouncing the sea convoy as a provocation and violation of maritime laws. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory by force three years ago.
In Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the flotilla signals the end of the blockade.
“If the ships reach Gaza, it’s a victory for Gaza,” Haniyeh told some 400 supporters after touring Gaza City’s small fishing harbor, where several smaller vessels breaking the blockade have docked in the past. “If they are intercepted and terrorized by the Zionists, it will be a victory for Gaza, too, and they will move again in new ships to break the siege of Gaza.”
In Cyprus, organizers were trying to find a way to have two dozen would-be passengers, including 19 European legislators and an elderly Holocaust survivor, join the ships anchored in international waters off the island. The Cypriot government did not allow smaller boats to carry the group to the flotilla, Berlin said.
Authorities in Cyprus said the decision was made to protect the island’s “vital interests” including economic ties with Israel.
Organizers then appealed to the Turkish government to get the group out via a Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus port. Turkish Cypriot officials have said they want to help the group as much as they can.
But a diplomatic tangle was not the only factor delaying the mission. Mechanical problems forced the flotilla to shrink from eight ships to five.
Israel has said it is determined to intercept and search the vessels, then tow them to an Israeli port.
Israel has prepared a makeshift detention center in its southern port of Ashdod, and officials have said the activists sailing on the ships face deportation or arrest.
Israel says that after a security check, it will transfer the cargo to Gaza through the United Nations. “We will not let this flotilla get through. It harms Israeli security,” Israel TV’s Channel 10 quoted Ayalon as saying.
Still, the aid convoy poses a serious dilemma that was debated at the highest levels of the Israeli government this week.
Scenes of Israeli naval commandos taking over vessels with aid shipments and detaining high-profile activists could further harm Israel’s image. However, Israel is concerned about setting a precedent and eroding the blockade if it lets the vessels dock in Gaza.
Critics say the blockade has been counterproductive, failing to dislodge Hamas while deepening poverty in Gaza. There have been growing demands by the international community that Israel ease its grip or lift the closure altogether.
Earlier this week, Turkey urged Israel to end the blockade and said it was using diplomatic channels with Israel to avert a showdown over the flotilla. However, Turkey’s government has also said the sea convoy, arranged in part by a Turkish aid group, is a private initiative.
Turkish-Israeli relations cooled after Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. In Gaza City, Haniyeh praised Turkey on Saturday as a leader among Muslim nations and the Gaza harbor was decorated with Turkish flags.
Since December 2008, Israel has not permitted boats carrying aid to reach Gaza.