In an Istanbul dockyard, workers are outfitting the Mavi Marmara, the ship on which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists a year ago, to lead a second attempt to break Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip.
The first voyage ended when soldiers rappelled from helicopters and opened fire after the ship, part of a six-boat flotilla, refused to stop. Israel says people onboard shot first and attacked with iron bars, a charge they deny. This time, activists plan to sail 15 vessels loaded with cargo and pro-Palestinian supporters, setting them on a collision course with Israel’s military.
Their goal is to defy and undermine the blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza next month by delivering aid to the enclave without permission. At stake are two often conflicting aims: Israel’s stated desire to limit and monitor cargo going into Gaza to prevent weapons from entering and Palestinian demands for self-determination and improved living conditions.
“For the flotilla’s organizers and supporters, including Turkey, it’s a win-win situation, in which they either secure humanitarian passage perceived to be alleviating suffering in Gaza, or are assaulted and perceived to be the victims of state-sponsored violence,” said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador after the raid and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded an apology and compensation before relations are fully restored. The attack prompted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to call the blockade “unsustainable and wrong” while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the deaths a “tragedy.”
The day after the May 31 raid, the shekel weakened to an almost 10-month low while the benchmark TA-25 stock index posted a two-day drop of 2.6 percent amid concern that criticism over the raid would spur investors to sell. The stock index has since rebounded 15 percent.
“The flotilla’s purpose was to embarrass Israel, complicate Israel’s situation regionally and internationally, and this definitely was achieved,” said Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Israel has to treat this very seriously.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on May 17 said he delivered “serious warnings and messages” to Israeli Ambassador Gabby Levy that “Turkey expects the incident won’t be repeated.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his country’s response was justified and warned on April 1 that “Israel is obligated to act aggressively against the flotilla.”
Thirty-six members of the U.S. Congress have signed a letter asking Erdogan to stop the convoy, calling it a “provocation.”
“The question is whether Israel can prevent the transfer of goods and perhaps weapons to Gaza, and continue the isolation of Hamas without hurting its international image even further,” Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said in a phone interview.
Israel imposed the embargo after the Islamic Hamas movement seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, ending a partnership government with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a year after winning parliamentary elections. Israel launched a three-week military operation at the end of 2008 against the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping cross-border rocket attacks. More than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the fighting.
Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the European Union and the United States; not by Turkey. The two Palestinian groups signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo on May 4.
Unemployment in Gaza stands at 37.4 percent, the World Bank said in April. Per capita gross domestic product in the Palestinian territory is about $775, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. By comparison, Israel’s gross domestic product per capita is about $30,000, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics.
Less than a month after the confrontation, Israel loosened its land blockade with Gaza with the aim of allowing more food in and keeping weapons and items with a possible military use out. Egypt on May 28 permanently opened its border crossing with the Gaza Strip, easing its own four-year blockade of the territory.
Netanyahu says maintaining the blockade is crucial to Israel’s security and has cited efforts by Iran to smuggle arms to Hamas by sea.
The Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or IHH, a Turkish Islamic charity organization, says it has paid $600,000 to repair and upgrade the Mavi Marmara. The other vessels in last year’s flotilla were stopped without loss of life.
The group is planning a march in central Istanbul tonight to commemorate the deaths on the Mavi Marmara, which occurred a year ago tomorrow.
Huseyin Oruc, a spokesman and member of the IHH’s administrative board, said 1,500 activists from 22 organizations will be participating in the second flotilla, more than double the size of the first. Only about 100 of the activists will be Turks, he said. The Mavi Marmara will link up with ships departing from Spain, Greece, France and Italy before heading for Gaza.
“They don’t have a right to stop us,” Oruc said. “The goal is to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza.”
Oruc said organizers would agree to allow ships to be searched by an international body before sailing on to the Hamas-controlled territory.
“Let international bodies check the boats, check the passengers, check all the participants, individuals, everything, every single thing, and then let the boats go to Gaza,” Oruc said in an interview yesterday with Israel’s Channel Two.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev called the new flotilla “an unnecessary provocation” and “a political stunt to support the Hamas regime.”
Turkey has discounted Israel’s investigation of last year’s raid, which concluded that it was legal.
Political tensions have not significantly affected economic ties. Turkey remains Israel’s biggest commercial partner in the region. Imports from Turkey to Israel from January to April of this year increased to $695 million from $600 million in the same period last year and exports from Israel to Turkey rose to $662 million from $420 million.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said if the activists “really want to send aid to Gaza, they can do what the international community is telling them to do, and that is send it through Israel or Egypt’s land crossings.”
Oruc didn’t answer questions as to how the activists would respond if Israelis boarded their ships.
“We believe they will not repeat the same mistake,” he said.