An international flotilla of European vessels carrying hundreds of human-rights activists and tons of humanitarian supplies is on a collision course with the Israeli navy as the boats make their way toward the blockaded port of Gaza.
The eight ships from Turkey, Greece, Ireland, Cyprus and Sweden are due to enter territorial waters off the coast of the Gaza Strip some time Sunday, at which point they expect to be confronted by naval and commando units of the Israel Defence Forces.
Preparations were completed Friday night on both sides of the Israel-Gaza frontier to receive the vessels and their 10,000 tons of cargo.
In Gaza's small, shallow-water seaport, a temporary structure was built and a receiving stand constructed where officials of the Hamas government plan to greet the leaders of the international activist groups. The area is festooned with Palestinian and Turkish flags, and banners bearing the image of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan proclaim Palestinian affection for their new best friend.
Four of the relief ships are said to be bearing Turkish flags, and a Turkish human-rights group has played a lead role in organizing the operation, the largest ever undertaken to try to break the blockade.
"I know that the ships will not change the life in Gaza," said Mohammed Ismail, 48, chief of maintenance in the port authority, "but this is the first step."
"These ships are a signal that this siege by Israel will be broken," said Ahmed Youssef, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, and the man charged with trying to end the blockade. "The fact that Israel may stop them by an act of piracy just proves the Israelis have no respect for international law."
Meanwhile, in the port of Ashdod, 35 kilometres to the north, Israel was preparing a greeting of a different sort. The finishing touches were put Friday on a detention centre where the several hundred activists could be taken if the ships are stopped at sea and directed - or towed - to the harbour. From there, the people would to be deported to their home nations.
"If they [the activists]were really interested in the well-being of the people of Gaza," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said, "they would have accepted the offers of Egypt or Israel to transfer humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, along with the other 15,000 tons sent every week. Instead, they have chosen a cheap political stunt."
Israel withdrew its forces and settlements from inside Gaza in 2005, but has maintained a blockade of the strip since 2007 when Hamas forcibly consolidated power over its partner in government, the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas.
Flotilla organizers and Hamas officials are hoping that the operation is a sign of things to come."I really believe the people of the world are losing patience with Israel," Mr. Youssef said. "These European ships just prove that."