FAMAGUSTA, Cyprus — A boat carrying Jewish activists from Israel, Europe and the United States set sail on Sunday from Cyprus bound for Gaza, in a bid to run Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory.
The "Irene" left the port of Famagusta in the Turkish-held north of the divided eastern Mediterranean island in the early afternoon carrying eight activists, three of them crew members, and two journalists.
Reuven Moskovitz, an 82-year-old passenger who survived the Nazi Holocaust, told AFP he felt duty-bound to attempt the voyage in the small blue and white sailing boat, a trip expected to take around 36 hours.
"It is a sacred duty for me, as a survivor, to protest against the persecution, the oppression and the imprisonment of so many people in Gaza, including more than 800,000 children," Moskovitz said.
Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli former military pilot and crew member on the British-flagged sailing boat, said they were not seeking confrontation.
"We have a policy of non-violence and non-confrontation," he said.
"But if the Israeli army stops the boat, we will not help them to take it to Ashdod," he said of the southern Israeli port where other blockade runners have been taken after being stopped by warships.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has repeatedly warned that Israel will intercept any ship nearing Gaza, which is run by the Islamist movement Hamas.
In May, Israeli forces intercepted a six-ship flotilla heading for Gaza but the raid went badly wrong and nine Turkish activists were killed, prompting a wave of international condemnation.
The "Irene" activists plan to raise multi-colored flags bearing the names of dozens of Jews who support their action as the vessel nears Gaza, they said.
"The boat's cargo includes symbolic aid in the form of children's toys and musical instruments, textbooks, fishing nets for Gaza's fishing communities and prosthetic limbs for orthopedic medical care in Gaza's hospitals," said a statement from the organizers, Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
Richard Kuper, a member of the organizing group, said "the Jewish Boat to Gaza is a symbolic act of protest against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the siege of Gaza, and a message of solidarity to Palestinians and Israelis who seek peace and justice.
"Israeli government policies are not supported by all Jews," Kuper said.
Activist Rami Elhanan, who is also on board, said: "We are banging our head on a very hard wall of hatred. Our hope is to make little cracks on that wall, so that in the end it will fall.
"Whatever happens, the worst thing has already happened to me, I am not afraid of what is coming next," added Elhanan, who lost her daughter in a 1997 suicide bombing.
Holocaust survivor Moskovitz said he still remained a Zionist.
"The state of Israel was a big dream, and it has become reality. We have to make sure it does not become a nightmare," he said.
"I am a Zionist, I still believe I have a right to be here, but not to rob Palestinians from their land and steal the rights of 1.5 million people."
Last week, a report by the UN Human Rights Council found there was clear evidence to back prosecutions against Israel for killing and torture when its troops stormed the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the May flotilla.
In a scathing report, it also threw out Israel's argument that the aid activists were violent, thereby justifying the decision by Israeli forces to open fire.
Israel rejected the report out of hand as "biased" and "one-sided."
It says its commandos resorted to force only after they were attacked when they rappelled onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, but pro-Palestinian activists on board say the soldiers opened fire as soon as they landed.
A separate inquiry into the incident has been set up by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and several more inquiries into the raid are also being pursued by Israel and Turkey.