International activists departed from Cyprus by boat on Friday in an attempt to run an Israeli sea blockade on 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza.
The 44 activists sailed from the port of Larnaca in two wooden boats at 9:50 a.m. (0650 GMT). Hailing from 14 countries, they said they expected to reach the shores of Gaza, patrolled by the Israeli navy, on Saturday.
"It has been 41 years since any boat has travelled in those waters, and we plan to be the first," said Paul Larudee, one of the organisers of the "Free Gaza" campaign.
Activists say their mission is a peaceful one. "There is this slow genocide going on in Gaza and nobody is taking any notice," said Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and author.
A previous attempt by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to sail to Haifa from Cyprus with Palestinian deportees failed in 1988, when a limpet bomb blew a hole in the hull of a ferry boat they had chartered.
An Israeli army spokesman declined to say whether the navy had plans to intercept the ship before it reached Gaza.
"We are following the developments," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said.
The activists include an 81 year old Catholic nun, the sister in law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a member of the Greek parliament. Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 84, initially scheduled to go, could not for medical reasons.
They say they plan to deliver some aid to Palestinians in the Gaza strip, but that the main purpose is to highlight the living conditions of people suffering shortages of everything from food to fuel since an Israeli crackdown.
"The siege that the Israelis have imposed on Gaza is not only illegal in terms of international law, it is also immoral," said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian.
"Global institutions and the governments of the world know what is happening and are not doing anything about it," she said.
Cyprus, which lies some 240 nautical miles west of Gaza, could not legally stop the departure of the boats. A Cypriot official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters there had been "soundings" by Israeli authorities on whether the vessels could be prevented from sailing from Cypriot shores.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 22 Ağustos 2008, 12:39
"Provided documentation was in order they could sail. That's the law and we cannot break it," the Cypriot source said.
Israel tightened security restrictions over economic, social and educational field on Gaza since the Hamas seized control there a year ago from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' security forces.
The Israelis completed a wall around the Gaza strip in 1996, and they credit the barrier with virtually halting suicide attacks from the coastal territory.
"When the Holocaust happened the whole world looked the other way while this atrocity against humanity was unfolding and it was often said we cannot allow this to happen again."