Turkey urged Israel on Tuesday to lift its blockade of Gaza and allow a Turkish-led convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to enter the Hamas-controlled enclave.

 

Israel and Egypt closed Gaza's borders after Hamas took control of the territory in 2007 and refused to forswear violence against the Jewish state. Gaza's 1.5 million people face shortages of water and medicine.

An international flotilla carrying some 10,000 tons of medical equipment, housing material and other supplies is expected to reach Israeli waters by Friday, according to a Turkey-based humanitarian aid group leading the effort.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference during a UN meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his government had been in touch with Israel about the aid convoy.

"Acting calmly is necessary rather than raising already heightened tensions," he said. "The blockade on Gaza should be lifted."

He added: "We don't want new tensions ... We believe Israel will use common sense towards this civilian initiative."

The Israeli government is under international pressure to relax its blockade, which the United Nations says punishes people in Gaza over the policy of Islamist Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's destruction.

Israel warned Tuesday that it would block the fleet of nine ships carrying some 700 international pro-Palestinian activists.

A similar, but smaller, aid flotilla was prevented by Israeli authorities a year ago. Five others have made it to Gaza in recent years.

Israel argues the blockade is necessary to keep violent elements in the Gaza Strip from rearming themselves with the tools to shoot rockets into Israel.

Israeli media reported authorities saying the ships would be boarded before they could reach Gaza. Any activists on board would be arrested.

Israeli authorities have urged the convoy's organizers to bring their goods to Gaza via a pre-approved border crossing. Organizers have said no such offer has been made.

"Ships that make their own way to Gaza don't do anything to help the people there," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Palmor said Free Gaza is "less interested in bringing help, than with advancing their radical agenda, which plays into the hands of Hamas."

Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, is one of Israel's closest allies in the Middle East but relations have soured, in part due to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's frequent criticism of the Jewish state's Palestinian policies.

Robert Serry, the UN's special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, said the blockade could only embolden militants.

"I am particularly concerned that the current closure creates unacceptable suffering, hurts forces of moderation and empowers extremists. I call for the closure policy to end," said Serry, who also serves as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's representative to the Palestinian Territories.

The convoy, organized by the Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), includes vessels from Britain, Greece, Algeria, Kuwait, Malaysia and Ireland.

It is carrying some 20 million euros worth of supplies, making it the largest ever to the Palestinian Territories, Salih Bilici, spokesman for the pro-Palestinian IHH, told Reuters.

"Part of this mission is to draw attention to the suffering of the people of Gaza," Bilici said. "We are not concerned that our safety is at risk, because we are a humanitarian group without political aims."

The group is determined to deliver the aid directly to Gaza, rather than leaving it with Israeli authorities, Bilici said.