By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem
Israeli Naval commandos were standing by to intercept the convoy of six ships sailing from Cyprus to Gaza in a symbolic attempt to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Hamas-controlled coastal strip.
The convoy is the sixth maritime mission launched by the Free Gaza Movement to protest the blockade imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza from Fatah in a bloody coup in July 2007. It is carrying 600 passengers, including 28 Britons, 10 MEPs and some 10,000 tons of supplies, including construction materials and foodstuffs banned by Israel.
Hanin Zuabi, an Arab member of Israel's Knesset parliament, who is on board, said: "The flotilla's purpose is not just to break the Gaza blockade, but also to break the blockade on the Israeli mind and soul." Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government that controls Gaza, said the convoy had already won an important victory against the Israel's "pirate threats" by drawing world attention to the plight of the Palestinians.
Greta Berlin, one of the convoy's organisers, said Israel risked losing face if they confronted what was designed to be a humanitarian mission.
"The only scenario which makes any sense is for them to stop being the bully of the Middle East and let us go through," she said.
Israel said a Turkish charity backing the flotilla had clear links to Hamas.
Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and says hundreds of tons of basic food and medical supplies are trucked in every day.
But a UN report published last week said the blockade was "suffocating" food production in Gaza.
"The entire fishing and farming sectors in the Gaza Strip are at risk of collapse. The Gaza population at-large is already becoming increasingly dependent on humanitarian aid," said Philippe Lazzarini, acting UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the region.
The Israeli military says it will intercept the convoy and then transfer permitted supplies overland through the normal routes. The protesters on the ships say they will offer passive resistance to naval boarding parties and are hoping to broadcast live coverage of the expected interception over the internet and Iran's Press TV.
Critics are warning that Israel's Gaza policy, designed to bring down the Hamas government and secure the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, has failed to bring about those results and is in danger of accelerating the country's growing international isolation.