WASHINGTON // Dozens of Americans, among them a Pulitzer Prize winner and a prominent social activist, are planning to board an American ship called The Audacity of Hope bound for the Gaza Strip.
They will be among an estimated 500 to 600 people taking part in Freedom Flotilla II. It will be the second attempt by activists to penetrate the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza and its organisers are under intense pressure to call it off.
The activists will sail on 10 ships and represent 22 countries. They are expected to sail from Greece tomorrow or Sunday. The ship The Audacity of Hope is named as a reference to the book by the US president, Barack Obama, written just before he stood for the presidency.
Israel said on Wednesday it has warned the UN that the flotilla could result in "dangerous consequences".
Israel's new UN ambassador, Ron Prosor, said: "Israel calls on all nations to do all in their power to prevent the flotilla from occurring and to effectively caution their citizens about the risks associated with participating in such harmful provocations.
"Launched under the false pretext of providing humanitarian assistance, this provocation is clearly designed only to serve an extremist political agenda and holds the potential for dangerous consequences," he said in a letter to the UN Security Council and to the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.
Israel has made clear it will prevent the pro-Palestinian flotilla from reaching Gaza. A year ago, nine Turkish activists, including one with dual US-Turkish nationality, were killed in an Israeli raid on a similar convoy.
Israel, together with Egypt, tightened a blockade on the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized it from forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
UN and Israeli officials announced on Tuesday that Israel had approved the building of new homes and schools in Gaza worth $100 million. That means Israel will allow building materials to be imported, undercutting the need for a flotilla.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has urged flotilla organisers to call it off and use approved land routes to get aid to Gaza.
Mr Prosor said in his letter that many of the groups participating in the new flotilla "maintain ties with extremist and terrorist organisations, including Hamas".
Washington is advising activists to refrain from participating in the voyage. "We've maintained for the past year that groups or individuals that seek to enter Gaza by sea are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that entail a risk to their safety", a State Department official said.
The US on Wednesday updated a travel warning urging Americans to refrain from travelling to Gaza by sea and emphasising risks.
The new State Department travel warning for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, said Americans could face arrest, prosecution, and deportation by Israel. "The Government of Israel has announced its intention to seek 10-year travel bans to Israel for anyone participating in an attempt to enter Gaza by sea," the notice said.
Nonetheless, dozens of Americans intend to participate in the flotilla.
Among them will be Alice Walker, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Color Purple, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, an anti-war group.
In a letter addressed to Barack Obama, the US president, this year's activists contend that "the blockade has impoverished the people of Gaza."
The US supports the blockade because Washington wants to break Hamas's control in Gaza, said Lazar Berman, programme manager for defence and policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank: "I know that the American policy is to see Hamas out. However that happens is the question, but certainly this blockade is seen as weakening Hamas and making it harder for them to rule."
Activists, however, argue that the primary concern should be the lives and livelihoods of innocent civilians caught up in the conflict.
Ms Benjamin said that on her five previous trips to Gaza, the sheer scope of the devastation brought her to act.
She said she was in Gaza soon after Israel invaded the territory in the winter of 2008 and "I was heartbroken to see the devastation, and the name of 'made in USA' on many of the weapons that were used to kill hundreds of innocent people. I feel a responsibility. I met people that I have great affection for and I know that they don't want to live as beggars from UN handouts."
Not only is there an economic impetus to act, Ms Benjamin said, but the blockade has severely infringed upon basic human rights, namely, freedom of movement.
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, agreed. "It is a blockade that has not only produced a great deal of material suffering among the population of the Gaza Strip, but deprives them of their most basic freedoms, the freedom of movement."
Moreover, Mr Abunimah argues that the flotilla is a response to the support that various governments, including the US, have given to the blockade.
This week's Israeli-Un announcement that Israel has approved huge construction projects in Gaza has not impressed the activists.
The Israeli government, keenly aware of the impending flotilla, allowed in “238 truckloads of goods and gas” to Gaza on Monday according to the IDF spokesperson’s twitter account, and approved two major United Nations Relief and Works Agency housing projects.
Such loosening of the spigot does not allow Gazans to rebuild an economy devastated by war and isolation, Ms Benjamin said. "While Israel says it's letting hundreds of trucks in a day, it's not nearly enough to rebuild and reinvigorate the economic activity in Gaza."
Mr Abunimah quoted Ms Walker, who likened the flotilla to the actions of ordinary Americans who engaged in civil disobedience in the 1950s and 1960s to call attention to the discrimination African-Americans suffered then. “They were met with lynchings, attacks, with extreme violence, with imprisonment, with torture by the authorities. What was the response of the Kennedy administration? It was to tell the Freedom Riders that they were being irresponsible and provocative.”
*With additional reporting from Reuters