An aid flotilla bound for Gaza was poised to set sail on Saturday, after a delay caused by technical snags and fears Israel might seize one of the ships, while Hamas's prime minister praised the venture as "a historical victory".
Haniyeh added that if Israel stopped the boats from docking it would only encourage others to come, and called on the international community to protect the flotilla from "Israel's pirate threats".
Hundreds of activists waiting in international waters off Cyprus were bracing for the final leg of their attempt to "break the siege" on the Strip, but organizers were having difficulty haggling with the Cypriot authorities for the transfer to the flotilla of a group of 25 multi-national parliamentarians waiting on the island.
Haniyeh, on board one of the Gazan boats set to welcome the flotilla, gave a speech Saturday saying the siege on Gaza was in its final hours. "The arrival of the flotilla in the Strip will be a victory for the Palestinian people, and even if the flotilla is thwarted by the piracy of Israel it will be considered a victory," he said.
The Hamas official added that the flotilla proved Turkey was "ending its alliance with the Israeli project".
Boats off Cyprus shore (Photo: AFP)
Organizers of the flotilla said it would only arrive in Gaza on Sunday.
However the IDF believes the boats will arrive in Israel's territorial waters Saturday night, and has announced it will place Navy ships off of Gaza's shores in the evening in order to intercept them.
"Once the flotilla reaches a set point in Israel's territorial waters Navy ships will go out to meet it," an army statement said. Earlier this week the military announced that the boats would not be allowed to dock in Gaza.
'Israel threatened to capture ship'
Thomas Sommer-Houdeville, a French pro-Palestinian activist on board one of the vessels, said the activists had sailed to the limits of Cypriot waters to try and negotiate with authorities.
The Cyprus authorities "last night (Friday) detained the captains of boats that were trying to take the MPs on board," he told AFP by telephone, adding that the mariners were released shortly afterwards.
Organizers have accused the Cyprus government of reneging on an earlier agreement to let the flotilla sail from Cyprus waters, alleging Israeli pressure which Nicosia has denied. The flotilla had originally been due to sail on Friday.
"We won't begin leaving until Saturday but the boats are still going," Audrey Bomse of the Free Gaza Movement told AFP on Friday.
"We've changed the coordinates twice because reportedly Israel has threatened to capture the Turkish ship so we decided to delay getting all the boats together," she added.
"This has delayed everything by a day because changing coordinates takes time... There were also technical difficulties with one of the boats so we had to move passengers from it on to the Turkish one," Bomse said.
Two cargo ships and five smaller boats loaded with thousands of tons of supplies and hundreds of passengers are preparing for the final leg of their journey, and organizers said an eighth ship, the Rachel Corrie en route from Ireland, was lagging behind and would travel towards Gaza separately.
French activists sail the Seine (Photo: AP)
Turkish flags at port
Meanwhile Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called the flotilla "a provocation and a gross violation of marine laws".
Speaking at a cultural event in Beersheba he added, "We will not allow this flotilla to pass. It is a blow to Israel's security… There is a problem with public relations, but we are prepared and explaining the situation in Gaza. There is no humanitarian crisis. At the Foreign Ministry we are making use of Youtube and Facebook to explain the situation. This is an Islamist and Hamasist event."
Earlier French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said his country is "still concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and calls for a complete implementation of Security Council Resolution 1860." Pro-Palestinian activists identified with the flotilla by carrying Palestinian flags on a boat in the Seine River.
Residents of Gaza are expecting 750 people from more than 40 different states to bring them 10,000 tons of food, medical supplies, and construction equipment. Recent preparations include decorating the Strip's port with flags, especially Turkish and Algerian.
Hamas has also warned of an Israeli attempt to stop the flotilla, and Palestinian news agencies have been reporting on IDF preparations to prevent the boats from reaching Gaza's shores.
But sources in the Strip say the flotilla has already achieved its aim by drumming up international press coverage. Some hint that a staunch Israeli response would be preferable, because it would provide even better advertisement for the residents of Gaza.