A flotilla of ships carrying activists and aid for the blockaded Gaza Strip finally steamed south from Cyprus Sunday, heading for a fleet of Israeli naval vessels determined to stop them.
The ships, carrying more than 700 passengers, are on the last leg of a high-profile mission to deliver tonnes of aid to Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007.
"We have just left in the last few minutes," Huwaida Arraf, chairman of the Free Gaza Movement, told AFP by phone from the boat Challenger 1.
"Israel is blocking an area about 20 nautical miles out from the Gaza coast and we expect to hit that area in the late morning or early afternoon" on Monday, she said.
In the Gaza Strip, anti-siege activists called on the international community to ensure the protection of the so-called "Freedom Flotilla" which had been aiming to arrive on Saturday.
"I am asking the international community to protect these boats from the Israeli threat," independent Palestinian MP Jamal al-Khudari said during a press conference on a boat anchored just outside the Gaza port.
"If Israel blocks them, they have a strategy for getting here," said Khudari, who heads the Gaza-based Committee to Lift the Siege. He did not give any further details.
With the flotilla expected to approach at some stage over the next 24 hours, Gaza fishermen took to the sea flying Palestinian flags as well as those of Greece, Ireland, Sweden and Turkey -- all of which sent boats.
Israel has slammed as "illegal" the convoy's attempt to break its blockade on Gaza, and has naval forces at the ready to intercept the ships and detain the pro-Palestinian activists on board.
As tensions mounted, several Israeli warships could be seen off the Gaza coast, an AFP photographer said.
Khudari said the convoy, which is carrying hundreds of civilians and a handful of European MPs, would stop outside Gaza territorial waters before attempting to make landfall.
It will travel "in two stages," he said: "First they will stop in international waters at 30 nautical miles (from Gaza), and tomorrow (Monday) they will reach the shore."
Israel has said it will intercept the vessels and detain the activists in the Israeli port of Ashdod before deporting them.
Palestinian demonstrators are also planning to release scores of balloons with pictures tied to them of children who were killed during Israel's huge 22-day offensive against Gaza which ended in January 2009.
Earlier, Audrey Bomse, legal adviser to the Free Gaza Movement, had said the convoy of boats was likely to avoid a confrontation with the Israeli army during hours of darkness.
She also said the activists were considering sending "a second wave" of boats later this week, which would include a boat that was damaged at the weekend, in what organisers charged was due to "sabotage", and the Rachel Corrie cargo ship, which is still en route to the eastern Mediterranean.
The flotilla, which is carrying 10,000 tonnes of aid, had originally been due to reach the besieged Gaza Strip on Saturday but was delayed because of technical problems.
Israel has made clear its intention to block the convoy.
"This is a provocation intended to delegitimise Israel," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said late on Saturday.
"If the flotilla had a genuine humanitarian goal, then its organisers should have transferred something for the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit as well," he said of the Israeli snatched by militants in 2006 and held by the Hamas Islamist movement which runs the enclave.
Hamas's refusal to release him is cited by Israel as one of the main reasons for imposing the economic blockade on Gaza in 2007
Pro-Palestinian activists have landed in Gaza five times, with another three unsuccessful attempts since their first such voyage in August 2008. The latest is their biggest operation.