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An aid ship to Gaza organized by left-wing Jewish activists from around the world set sail on Sunday from the Cypriot port of Famagusta.

The ship, which is sailing under a British flag, is crewed by Jews from the United States, Britain, Germany and Israel. The captain is a British Jew who belongs to Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the group that organized the sailing.

The nine passengers also include Israeli Yonatan Shapira, a pilot who signed a letter refusing to do military service in the territories, and his brother Itamar; Rami Elhanan, whose daughter Smadar was killed in a terrorist attack in 1997; and Reuven Moskovitz, a Holocaust survivor who helped found the Jewish-Arab community of Neveh Shalom.

Yonatan Shapira gained notoriety about two months ago when he was photographed spray-painting graffiti calling for an end to the blockade of Gaza on the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.

The ship, the Irene, is expected to reach Gaza in about two days if left to sail unimpeded.

"We hope the soldiers and officers of the navy will think twice before they obey orders to stop us," said Shapira, reached yesterday by satellite phone. "I hope they recall the history of our people and the people who obeyed orders and later said, 'I was just obeying orders.' We do not constitute any risk to the security of Israel's citizens."

The ship's cargo includes toys, schoolbooks, musical instruments, fishing nets and prosthetic limbs for orthopedic treatments - aid that the organizers acknowledge is merely symbolic.

"The Jewish Boat to Gaza is a symbolic act of protest against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the siege of Gaza, and a message of solidarity to Palestinians and Israelis who seek peace and justice," said one of the organizers, Richard Kuper of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, in a press statement issued from London. "Israeli government policies are not supported by all Jews."

But the activists pledged that if the navy does intercept the ship, they will not resist violently.

"This is a nonviolent action," Kuper said. "We aim to reach Gaza, but our activists will not engage in any physical confrontation and will therefore not present the Israelis with any reason or excuse to use physical force or assault them."

Shapira said the fact that the ship's passengers were all Jews, including Holocaust survivors and Israeli army veterans, "might stop them [the navy] from shooting at us like they did at the Turkish flotilla" in May.

"We won't do anything that could constitute a pretext for violence," he added.