The organisers of the Canadian and Irish vessels gave no advance publicity to the mission for fear of sabotage or of Israeli diplomatic pressure aimed at stopping the boats leaving port.
The Tahrir and the Saoirse, which are also carrying a “symbolic” cargo of $30,000 worth of medicines, left Fethiye on the Turkish Mediterranean coast on Wednesday.
If the vessels are not intercepted by the Israeli navy they expect to reach Gaza on Friday.
Among those on board the boats are activists and journalists from nine countries. None are Turkish nationals. The passengers have been trained in non-violent resistance but are unarmed, according to organisers.
“The message they carry is one of unity, defiance, and hope, in spite of Israel’s policies that have physically separated Palestinians from each other,” Freedom Waves to Gaza, the umbrella organisation behind the mission, said in a statement.
Majd Kayyal, a Palestinian philosophy student from Haifa, who was on board the Tahrir, said: “We want to break the siege that Israel has imposed on our people. The fact that we’re in international waters is already a victory for the movement. Israel’s siege of Gaza is untenable and it’s a moral responsibility to put an end to this injustice.”
A spokesman for the Israeli defence forces declined to comment, saying only that the military was “looking into” reports of the boats’ intended passage.
In May 2010, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a flotilla of activists heading for Gaza. The operation led to the deaths of nine Turkish nationals and triggered a diplomatic crisis with its ally.
An attempt to launch a second flotilla from Greece four months ago was blocked by the Greek government under pressure from Israel and the US. Activists also said that some boats had been sabotaged.
However, individual activist boats carrying aid were permitted to land in Gaza on five separate occasions in 2008.
Israel imposed a naval blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007. It says it is necessary to prevent weapons being supplied to militants in Gaza.
Critics of the sea and land blockade regard the restriction as collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants.
Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian