Extremist activists aboard a flotilla of boats are to soon set sail for Gaza in a fresh bid to break Israel's limited blockade of the Islamist-held territory, five years after a similar attempt ended in a deadly raid.
The so-called Freedom Flotilla III – a convoy of ships carrying anti-Israel activists, including at least one European lawmaker and an Arab-Israeli MK – will try to reach the shores of the Gaza Strip by the end of the month.
Their campaign comes as Israel faces international pressure over its military operation last summer to stop rocket attacks from Gaza-based terrorist groups, with a UN report released Monday saying both the Jewish state and Palestinian terrorists may have committed war crimes during last year's conflict in the coastal enclave.
Israel's blockade of the territory dates back to 2006, after Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and was tightened a year later when the Islamist terrorist movement consolidated control of Gaza, using it as a launchpad for rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.
Since then the blockade – which is meant to prevent weapons, fighters and other equipment reaching Islamist terrorist groups – has been eased considerably, although weapons are still not allowed to be trafficked in.
At the same time, a blockade by the Egyptian military is ongoing, and by all accounts far more restrictive, as Egypt seeks to cut Islamist terrorists in Gaza off from the Sinai Peninsula, where it says Hamas and other groups are helping fuel a jihadist insurgency.
Anti-Israel activists have long called for the blockade – ruled as entirely legal by a UN commission – to be lifted, claiming despite the ruling that it is "illegal."
"We're not alone in considering the blockade to be inhumane and illegal," Staffan Graner, an activist who is sailing aboard Swedish trawler the Marianne of Gothenburg, told AFP.
"What we want to do… is to keep up international pressure that the blockade should end," he said.
The Marianne of Gothenburg, which set sail from Sicily on Friday, will join four other vessels carrying some 70 people en route for Gaza, according to a statement from the Platform of French NGOs for Palestine, a group supporting the effort that is funded by the French government.
Among those aboard will be former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki, Spanish MEP Ana Maria Miranda Paza and Arab-Israeli MK Basel Ghattas (Joint List), organizers said.
Ghattas's decision to join the flotilla has caused outrage in Israel.
On Sunday, deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely said the flotilla was "the work of provocateurs whose aim is to blacken Israel's face," adding that the ministry had been working "through diplomatic channels night and day" to prevent it from reaching Israeli waters.
In a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Ghattas urged that he "command the Israeli security forces to stay away and allow the flotilla to arrive at its destination."
"Any form of takeover to prevent this will only involve Israel in yet another difficult international crisis or scandal," he warned.
'Violence would be stupid'
Ghattas was referring to the deaths of 10 armed Turkish Islamist aboard the Mavi Marmara, who were killed while violently attacking Israeli commandos who intercepted the boat as it attempted to reach Gaza in May 2010.
Despite claiming to contain "humanitarian aid," the Marmara was revealed to have almost no cargo whatsoever.
An Israeli-Arab MK was present on the Marmara as well – Hanin Zoabi, whose support for Hamas and involvement in the violent raid sparked calls for her to be dismissed from the Knesset.
Since then, several ships manned by anti-Israel activists have tried to reach the shores of Gaza, but they have all been repelled by the Israeli navy. International aid groups in contrast are able to easily reach Gaza via land crossings from Israel, as long as they coordinate with the Israeli army first.
But activists in the Freedom Flotilla III say they are undeterred.
They say the international pressure Israel faces after the latest conflict Gaza, along with the uproar the 2010 raid caused, make it unlikely it will use violence this time.
"One has to be realistic," Graner said.
"We know that we're sailing towards a blockade that is upheld essentially by two large military forces," he said, referring also to Egypt's navy.
"We think Israel lost a lot by the violence that they used in 2010. It would be extremely stupid of the Israelis… to use violence against us."
Meanwhile, many Israeli lawmakers have called for MK Ghattas's parliamentary immunity to be removed in response to his decision to join the flotilla.
AFP contributed to this report.