AGIOS NIKOLAOS, Greece - A global coalition of Palestinian support groups is taking protest to a dangerous new point of brinkmanship this week, with an attempt to crash through Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in a flotilla of cargo and passenger boats now assembling in the eastern Mediterranean.
Converging at an undisclosed rendezvous in international waters, the four small cargo boats and four passenger vessels - ranging from cruisers carrying 20 to a Turkish passenger ferry for 600 - are a multimillion-dollar bid to shame the international community to use ships to circumvent Israel's tight control on humanitarian supplies reaching war-ravaged Gaza.
As the first boat in the flotilla sailed from Dundalk, Ireland, to link up with others being readied at ports in Turkey and in Greece, Israel announced that it would bar the boats from landing.
A senior foreign ministry official described the flotilla as a ''provocation and a breach of Israeli law''.
Israeli media reports say that the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has formally ordered that waters off Gaza become a closed zone to a distance of 20 nautical miles.
Israel already has a ''large naval force'' on manoeuvre in the area; and as a confrontation at sea looms, suspicion was taking hold in both camps.
Mechanical difficulties in the boat bound from Ireland - the 1200-tonne MV Rachel Corrie, named after an American who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 - prompted claims that the boat had been sabotaged. Unnamed Israeli officials have claimed elements in the flotilla would attempt to garner media attention by seeking to provoke Israeli violence.
Further complicating a tense scenario were reports of a welcome fleet of small boats attempting to put to sea from Gaza, and of an Israeli ''counter flotilla'' that had assembled near Tel Aviv as a "civil initiative ... not connected to any political group''.
Israel has rejected pleas by several ambassadors, most vocally by Dublin's envoy to Tel Aviv, that their nationals on the flotilla be given safe passage to Gaza.
In the port of Agios Nikolaos, here on the Greek island of Crete, one of the lead organisers of the flotilla is the Free Gaza Movement's Renee Jaouadi - a 34-year-old schoolteacher, formerly from Newcastle, NSW. Under the banner of the Freedom Flotilla, the protest is a $US3 million-plus ($3.6 million) operation. Apart from 10,000 tonnes of building, medical, educational and other supplies, on board are dozens of parliamentarians from around the world and professionals planning to offer their services in Gaza.
Celebrity names include the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell and Denis Halliday, a former United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator who in 1998 resigned, protesting that economic sanctions on Iraq amounted to genocide.
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On Saturday evening, attempts were under way to find a berth on the over-subscribed manifest for the activist American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who Israeli authorities last week barred from entering the West Bank where he had been invited to speak at a Palestinian university.
Five of eight previous protest boats have managed to land in Gaza. But most recently one was rammed at sea by an Israeli navy ship, and another was captured, with all on board being held in Israeli jails for up to a week before they were deported.
This is deliberately their biggest operation. Ms Jaouadi said the number of vessels and passengers in this week's flotilla was intended to overstretch the capacity of Israel's navy and, in the event of mass arrests, the capacity of its prisons.
"It is perfectly logical to go in by sea when entry by land and air is closed," she said. "We are ordinary civilians doing what governments and big NGOs are refusing to do. The UN is always complaining that it can't get supplies through: why is it not sending ships?"
Ms Jaouadi, who was deported from Israel in 2008, rejected a suggestion that the flotilla would be construed as support for terrorism because Gaza remains under the control of Hamas. Instead, she argued that MPs and others on board "had to see how hard it is to get a bag of cement to build a school, so that kids can be educated; and to fix a hospital, so that mothers don't have to have their babies in tents".
If the flotilla can reach Gaza, shipboard clinics will be operating from some of the vessels, using an on-board dental chair, blood-collecting machines and hospital beds. The building materials manifest includes 500 tonnes of cement, prefabricated homes, water filtration equipment and generators.
"We are supplying basic needs of a population of 1.5 million, half of whom are under voting age," Ms Jaouadi said. "Why are they being collectively punished for a political situation over which they have no power and had no say?"
But as an Israeli commentator dismissed the flotilla as a "ragtag armada of rust buckets loaded with international 'peace' activists", the Israeli government sought to play down the effectiveness of the 10,000-tonne cargo it might deliver, claiming that in the past week it had allowed more than 14,000 tonnes of supplies into the Gaza Strip.
"I suspect this time the Israelis are very determined to stop us," Ms Jaouadi said. "With the first boats they figured there would be less media attention if they let us in. But now they see us revealing that ships are the answer."