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Four-boat flotilla set to reach Gaza within days

Anti-blockade activists include Arab Israeli MK, ex-Tunisian president; say they won’t resort to violence if intercepted by Israel

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Palestinians hold their national flag during a rally to show support for activists aboard a flotilla heading for Gaza in a fresh bid to break Israel's blockade of the territory, in Gaza City, June 24, 2015. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Palestinians hold their national flag during a rally to show support for activists aboard a flotilla heading for Gaza in a fresh bid to break Israel's blockade of the territory, in Gaza City, June 24, 2015. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

A fleet of civilian vessels carrying humanitarian aid bound for the Gaza Strip set sail from various European ports Saturday, campaign organizers said.

Sailing under the banner “Freedom Flotilla III,” three ships will join the Swedish fishing trawler the Marianne of Gothenburg, which set sail from Crete to the Gaza Port Thursday, in an effort to deliver aid and break Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.

Some 70 activists from 20 countries are aboard the boats, including former Tunisian President Mohamed Marzouki and Israeli Arab MK Basel Ghattas of the Joint (Arab) List.

According to Israel Radio, the fleet is expected to reach Gaza in the next three to five days. Israeli officials have said that the boats will be stopped before they can dock.

Channel 2’s reporter Ohad Hemo, who is aboard the Marianne, said Saturday that the flotilla expected to near Gaza late on Sunday night, and that all of those on board are adamant that there will be no resort to violece if, as expected, the IDF attempts to intercept them.

He said the 18 people on board had signed a pledge not to use violence, and that they would “passively resist” the anticipated boarding by IDF naval commandos.

https://twitter.com/Firenaut/status/614783862330290176

Meanwhile in Gaza, residents gathered at the sea port over the weekend anxiously awaiting the arrival of the ships, showing support for the international effort to lift the Israeli naval blockade and holding signs reading “Our right to have a waterway,” and “Let the ships into Gaza.”

Organizers, who say the campaign aims to shed light on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, called on the international community to provide protection from the Israeli military, which intercepted two previous flotillas in 2010 and 2011.

In May 2010, Israeli commandos intercepted the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in a flotilla dispatched to Gaza by the Turkish relief agency Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), and were violently attacked by those on board, with several soldiers seriously injured.

Nine Turks died when the commandos opened fire in what Israel said was self-defense, and one more died from injuries sustained in the incident last year.

MK Hanin Zoabi of the Joint List, and an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, was on the Mavi Marmara at the time.

Although Ghattas’s participation in the blockade drew condemnation from many Israeli politicians, he said that it was his duty to take part in the campaign for the sake of Gaza’s residents.

Palestinian children at the Gaza port await the arrival of the third "freedom flotilla" on Friday, June 26, 2015. (Screen grab: YouTube)
Palestinian children at the Gaza port await the arrival of the third “freedom flotilla” on Friday, June 26, 2015. (Screen grab: YouTube)

“It is my right and moral obligation to tell the world, ‘Behold, look, in Gaza there is a closure and two million people are on the brink of explosion,’” Ghattas told the Hebrew-language Walla news site earlier this week. “A solution to this problem must be found, along with ways to end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” he added.

Before joining the ship, Ghattas, whose participation has been endorsed by his own party, sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon urging them to let the flotilla reach the Palestinian coastal enclave or face an international backlash.

Ghattas said he had assured Netanyahu before his departure that the ships bore no weapons, firearms or otherwise.

Israeli-born Swedish activist Dror Feiler aboard the Marianne, echoed Ghattas’s assurances of non-violence and said that all of those participating in the flotilla have signed a document committing to refrain from violent resistance if the IDF boards the vessels, and pledging that there would be no weapons on board.

The activists say the convoy of vessels are carrying a cargo of solar panels and medical supplies for Gaza residents, who are still recovering from last summer’s conflict.

Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2007 when the Islamist Hamas group took control of the Strip in a bloody coup, ousting the Palestinian Authority leadership.

Both countries say the blockade is meant to prevent Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, from importing weaponry into Gaza.

The IDF has intercepted a number of civilian ships carrying weapons headed for Gaza in recent years. It has also turned away attempts by activists to break the blockade.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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