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Flotilla bound for blockaded Gaza delayed

By Karoun Demirjian

JERUSALEM —Ships carrying 10,000 tons of supplies and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to blockaded Gaza were being held up near Cyprus on Saturday, as organizers tried to get nearly two dozen high-profile supporters on board.

The flotilla was initially to set sail toward Gaza on Saturday afternoon, and approach the territory today, about 24 hours behind schedule, said Greta Berlin, one of the activists.

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A showdown with the Israeli navy appeared inevitable. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, reiterated Saturday that the ships would be intercepted. He also denounced the sea convoy as a provocation and violation of maritime laws. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory by force three years ago.

In Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the flotilla signals the end of the blockade.

“If the ships reach Gaza, it’s a victory for Gaza,” Haniyeh told some 400 supporters Saturday, after touring Gaza City’s small fishing harbor where several smaller vessels breaking the blockade have docked in the past. “If they are intercepted and terrorized by the Zionists, it will be a victory for Gaza, too, and they will move again in new ships to break the siege of Gaza.”

In Cyprus, organizers of the flotilla said the ships would make their 15-hour journey to Gaza at midnight Saturday.

The organizers said the two dozen would-be passengers, including 19 European legislators and an elderly Holocaust survivor, were expected to join the ships anchored in international waters off the island late Saturday.

The Cypriot government at first would not allow smaller boats to ferry the group to the flotilla, Berlin said. Authorities in Cyprus said the decision was made to protect the island’s “vital interests” – including economic ties with Israel.

Organizers then appealed to the Turkish government to get the group out via a Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus port. Turkish Cypriot officials have said they want to help the group as much as they can.

But a diplomatic tangle wasn’t the only factor delaying the mission. Mechanical problems forced the flotilla to shrink from eight ships to five, and the boats have lost the ability to communicate by satellite phone twice, Berlin said.

Israeli authorities have said they will not comment on military tactics, but are determined to intercept and search the vessels, then tow them to an Israeli port. Israel has prepared a makeshift detention center in its southern port of Ashdod, and officials have said the activists sailing on the ships face deportation or arrest.

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