TEL AVIV // Israel has stepped up a diplomatic campaign to pressure Turkey to halt an aid flotilla expected to try to break Israel's blockade of Gaza possibly in June, even as the country's leadership is reportedly mulling whether to let some boats reach the enclave.
Yesterday, one of the flotilla's organisers announced the ships would set sail after elections in Turkey. "We will go to Gaza in late June, after the elections," which are scheduled on June 12, Salih Bilici, the spokesman for the Islamist charity IHH, said.
The convoy had initially planned to leave in May to mark the anniversary of the raid against the first flotilla on May 31.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is considering permitting ships in the aid convoy to reach Gaza's shores should they agree to pass a security check of their cargo and passengers, Israeli Television's channel 2 reported yesterday without citing its sources. Israel has not allowed any boat to reach Gaza since it tightened its blockade of the territory that Hamas took over in 2007.
According to the report, loosening the restrictions would be a way for Israel to ward off international criticism of its siege of Gaza, a year after nine Turkish activists were killed in a six-vessel aid convoy that headed to the enclave and was raided by Israeli commandos.
A spokesman from the premier's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that allowing the ships to reach Gaza was one of several options being weighed by Mr Netanyahu.
The report came a day after Gaby Levy, Israel's ambassador to Turkey, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that he conveyed a message to Halit Cevik, the deputy secretary of the Turkish foreign ministry, that Israel wanted Turkey to halt the flotilla's mission.
"We have explained our views to the Turkish government," Mr Levy said. He added that while no ships were allowed to reach Gaza, Israel would be ready to transfer any humanitarian aid carried by the ships to the region.
"There is a greater flexibility on the Israeli side. The quota for 220 trucks cannot even be filled as there is no need for more aid. Under these conditions, such an aid campaign could only be seen as a provocation," he added.
Mr Levy indicated that the Israeli navy would not hesitate to act to halt the boats from reaching their destination.
"Our position is well known. International law permits countries to intervene with ships that could pose a threat to their national security."
Hurriyet cited an unidentified Turkish official as saying that Turkey was evaluating the Israeli request and had still not made a decision.
Relations between Israel and Turkey, which were close allies for more than a decade, have sharply deteriorated since Israel launched a three-week onslaught in Gaza in late December 2008. The ties worsened after Israel's raid of the Gaza-bound ships on May 31, 2010, in which nine Turkish activists died. Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, had lambasted the Israeli attack as "state terrorism".
The ferry Mavi Marmara belonging to the Turkish charity IHH was the flagship of the flotilla when Israeli soldiers attacked in international waters. Mr Bilici said Mavi Marmara would be in the new convoy too, which will bring together participants from 50 countries in a bid to break the blockade.
The interview with Mr Levy was part of an escalating Israeli campaign to prevent the flotilla from sailing by suggesting the protesters might be deliberately trying to spark violence. On Monday, Mr Netanyahu told a group of European Union heads of mission in Jerusalem that the ships "must be stopped."
He added that preventing them from travelling is a "common interest" to Israel and to Europe.
"We are aware that there is an attempted provocation in May, possibly early June, of another so-called flotilla, not a peace flotilla but a provocation, a deliberate provocation to seek to ignite this part of the Middle East," he said.
Mr Netanyahu also blasted the IHH charity as an "extremist Islamist elements whose aim is to … bring about a conflagration".
Earlier this month, Mr Netanyahu called on Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to take steps to halt the ships from their protest.
Israel began tightening movement restrictions on people and goods in the Gaza Strip in June 2006 after one of its conscripts, Gilad Shalit, was kidnapped by Gaza militants. Mr Shalit has since then been held captive by Hamas and talks on a possible prisoner exchange between the Islamist movement and Israel have yielded few tangible results. The land, air space and naval siege was further restricted in 2007 after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from the secular Fatah group that holds sway in the West Bank.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse