The Saint Mariam, or Virgin Mary, has a multi-faith international passenger list, including the Lebanese singer May Hariri and a group of nuns from the US. “They are nuns, doctors, lawyers, journalists, Christians and Muslims,” said Mona, one of the participants who, along with the other women, has adopted the ship’s name, Mariam.
The Mariam and its sister ship, Naji Alali, had hoped to set off several weeks ago but faced several delays after Israel launched a diplomatic mission to pressure Lebanon to stop the mission.
The co-ordinator of the voyage, Samar al-Haj, told the Guardian this week the Lebanese government had given permission for the boats to leave for Cyprus, the first leg of the journey, this weekend.
Israel says it is concerned a flotilla from Lebanon, with whom it has ongoing hostility, will smuggle weapons to Gaza. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, has warned that Israel reserves the right to use “necessary measures” in line with international law to stop the ship.
But al-Haj says the mission is purely humanitarian. “Our goal is to arrive in Gaza,” she said. “It is the responsibility of the government to deal with the politics. We are not political.”
She said that once news of the flotilla was out organisers were inundated with requests to join the voyage, with more than 400 from the US alone. At least 10 Americans will be on board.
The boat has been stocked with medical instruments and medicines to take to the Palestinians.
In preparation for the voyage the participants gathered at a hotel in Beirut to discuss their plans. The logistics are many: minimal grooming, strict food rationing, and limited water supply.
“There will be no showers, no skirts and no makeup,” al-Haj told the group.
The participants are aware of the dangers, having followed the fate of another flotilla carrying aid for Gaza that was attacked by Israel in May.
Israeli forces landed on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel, killing nine activists on board. Al-Haj reminded the women to be prepared for a confrontation.
“Have blood tests in case we come under attack from Israel and you need a blood transfusion,” she said. She added that organisers were going out of their way not to provoke Israel.
“We will not even bring cooking knives,” she said.
Serena Shim, who is heavily pregnant, decided to join the voyage because of her belief that the blockade is unjust. “These people need aid,” she said.
Asked how they would react to an Israeli military assault, one activist, Tania al Kayyalisaid: “We are not planning to fight or attack – but we will not leave the St Mariam.”