Two ships carrying medical aid and activists have set sail from Turkey in a new bid to to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, pro-Palestinian activists said on Wednesday.
A statement issued by the Freedom Waves group said the mini-flotilla made up of one Irish ship and one Canadian ship had left Fethiye on Turkey's south coast on Wednesday afternoon and planned to arrive in Gaza on Friday.
The group said the two boats, the Canadian Tahrir and the Irish Saoirse were carrying 27 people, including journalists and crew members, along with $30,000 worth of medicines.
"Two civilian boats, the Canadian Tahrir (Liberation), and the Irish Saoirse (Freedom)... are currently in international waters making their way to the beleaguered Gaza Strip to challenge Israel's ongoing criminal blockade of the territory," the statement said.
"We have the wind of public opinion at our back and in our sails, which strengthens our resolve and determination to challenge the illegal blockade of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants," the Canadian Boat to Gaza organizer Ehab Lotayef said.
Activists organised a major attempt to break Israel's blockade in May 2010, when a flotilla of ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara tried to sail to Gaza.
Israeli naval commandos raided the flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists and sparking a diplomatic crisis that culminated earlier this year in Ankara expelling Israel's ambassador and suspending military ties with the Jewish state.
A second flotilla, dubbed the Freedom Flotilla II, tried to reach Gaza in July, but several ships were sabotaged -- which activists blamed on Israel -- and the final group of boats was intercepted before arriving in Gaza.
The organisers of the latest flotilla said they had organised their effort in secret, in a bid to prevent Israeli interference.
"The 'Freedom Waves to Gaza' organisers chose not to publicise the effort in advance given Israel's efforts to block and sabotage Freedom Flotilla II last July," the group said.
David Heap on the Canadian ship said they faced "economic blackmail," and were forcibly boarded by the Greek Coast Guard en route but persisted into international waters.
Also, 11th hour restrictions by port authorities at their departure meant that only one third of the assembled delegates and media were allowed to embark, he said in a statement released in Canada.
An Israeli armed forces spokeswoman said the navy "is prepared to prevent their ability to reach the Gaza Strip," without specifying how.
"We understand that this is once again another provocation in a long line of provocations against the State of Israel," Avital Leibovitch told the media.
She recalled that the UN-appointed Palmer committee, which investigated the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara, had ruled that the maritime blockade of Gaza was legal.
Leibovitch said that Israel transferred to Gaza 300 trucks a day of supplies.
"I fail to understand how two yachts can carry on board any supplies that would compete with the amount of supplies that are entering every day into Gaza," she said.
Israel has vigorously defended its right to maintain a blockade on Gaza, which it says is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory.