Masked naval commandos will intercept, Israel warns

NICOSIA — Hundreds of activists on Friday braced for the final leg of their attempt to bust the Gaza Strip embargo, a bid Israel vowed to defeat as each side accused the other of violating international law.

The Associated Press reports, "Israel on Thursday unveiled a massive makeshift detention center in the country's main southern port and announced the end of days of intense naval maneuvers, vowing to stop a flotilla of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists trying to break a 3-year blockade of the Gaza Strip this weekend."

Military authorities said that masked naval commandos would greet the eight ships deep out at sea, escort the vessels to port and give each of the activists a stark choice: leave the country or go to jail.

But the tough response threatened to backfire by breathing new life into the activists' mission and drawing new attention to the oft-criticized blockade of Gaza.

Two cargo ships and five smaller boats loaded with thousands of tonnes of supplies and hundreds of passengers steamed towards a rendezvous point off the Cyprus coast where they planned to regroup before setting out for the Palestinian territory.

Organisers said an eighth ship, the Rachel Corrie that had left from Ireland, was lagging behind and would travel towards Gaza separately.

The ships will meet in international waters, they said. "The Cypriot government does not want us to leave from Cyprus. I can only assume pressure was put on them," said Audrey Bomse, one of the coordinators.

A Cyprus government official said of the flotilla that Cyprus had not received any formal request from the Palestinian Authority for humanitarian aid.

Israel earlier told the ambassadors of Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, and Ireland -- the countries from which the ships set sail -- it "issued warrants that prohibit the entrance of the vessels to Gaza" and that the flotilla would be breaking international law.

Israel made it clear it intends to halt the vessels and detain the hundreds of people aboard in the port of Ashdod before deporting them.

Bomse suggested this may just be "sabre rattling."

"We are planning on getting there and staying in Gaza for two days," she said.

But Israel has stepped up its warnings in recent days and readied naval forces.

Organisers dismissed the claim that their blockade-busting bid is illegal.

"Most despicably of all, Israel claims that we are violating international law by sailing unarmed ships carrying humanitarian aid to a people desperately in need," the Free Gaza Movement said in a statement.

"These claims only demonstrate how degenerate the political discourse in Israel has become."

Israel imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas -- an Islamist movement committed to the destruction of Israel -- violently seized power in the impoverished, overcrowded Palestinian territory.

Because of the blockade, only limited reconstruction has been possible in the wake of the devastating 22-day offensive Israel launched on December 27, 2008.

In New York, UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday appealed to all sides to act with care and responsibility.

"We strongly urge that all involved act with a sense of care and responsibility and work for a satisfactory resolution," Ban's spokesman said.

Pro-Palestinian activists have landed in Gaza five times, with another three attempts unsuccessful since their first such sea voyage in August 2008.

To date, the aid has been largely symbolic, but organisers say the flotilla now under way is laden with 10,000 tonnes of aid, ranging from pre-fabricated homes to pencils.