ISTANBUL //Activists in Turkey say they will send a new aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip in June, despite a deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla a year ago.
"This is a perfectly legal initiative by a non-governmental organisation," Huseyin Oruc, a board member of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, or IHH, the Turkish organisation planning the flotilla, said on Friday.
He said the new flotilla, made up of 15 ships, most of which would come from western Europe, would sail towards Gaza in the last week of June.
Last year, nine IFF activists were killed and seven Israeli soldiers injured during a raid on a convoy to Gaza on May 31.
While Israel considers the IHH an extreme Islamist group, Mr Oruc said the organisation strictly offers only humanitarian relief. "Just like we help in Misurata, we help in Gaza with the same mentality," he said.
Preparations for the second flotilla raise concerns that Turkey and Israel, two key US allies in the Middle East still at odds over last year's incident, are heading towards a fresh confrontation.
Ankara seems reluctant to step in to prevent the new flotilla from sailing. "In free democratic societies, it is only natural for NGOs to undertake all forms of activity that are not prohibited by legal order," a Turkish official wrote in an e-mail in response to questions on Friday.
As Mr Erdogan is facing parliamentary elections on June 12, he is unlikely to move on the issue of the Gaza flotilla, an initiative popular with many voters, at least until then.
"Last year, we had notified Israel a multitude of times that it should avoid by all means resorting to force, and act responsibly," the official stressed.
"The attack took place in spite of all our requests and warnings. We are reiterating these warnings once again today."
According to reports in the Turkish press, 36 members of the US Congress wrote a letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, asking him to make sure the second flotilla would not sail. Israel has also asked Turkey to prevent the second flotilla from sailing.
Gaby Levy, the Israeli ambassador to Ankara, told a Turkish newspaper last month that he had conveyed his country's views on the matter to the Turkish government.
The Turkish official said Israel should address the underlying reasons by improving the situation in Gaza, saying "it should lift the blockade and allow the unimpeded transfer of humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip."
In a symbolic move, the IHH is planning to send its ship Mavi Marmara to Gaza again.
It was the same ship stormed by the Israelis last year, and it received a hero's welcome when Israel sent it back to Turkey last summer.
Mr Oruc said the Mavi Marmara would be the only Turkish ship in the flotilla, which would be more than twice as large as last year's convoy of six vessels. He said about 5,000 people had volunteered for the voyage.
Only about a hundred people would actually be on the Mavi Marmara in June. "In Turkey, everybody wants to go" to Gaza on the Mavi Marmara," he added.
Ankara, which withdrew its ambassador to Israel after the raid, is demanding an Israeli apology for the attack as well compensation payments to the families of the victims, but Israel has rejected those demands.
Each side accuses the other of starting the violence, which drew the world's attention to the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
A UN panel is due to publish its findings on the incident this month, but differences about the wording of the report are causing delays, according to reports in the Turkish press.
For years, Turkey and Israel were close partners, and Mr Erdogan's government even organised indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. But the relationship went sour after the Israeli military intervention in Gaza in late 2008.
Turkey was ready to put its differences with Israel behind it, but the Israeli government had to do its bit as well, the Turkish official wrote.
"We value our relations with Israel and we hope that Israel will fulfil our expectations of a public apology and compensation," he added.
"These are the necessary steps which will enable us to normalize our relations." Mr Oruc said he was confident there would be no raid this year. "Given the global reaction [to the raid], I don't think Israel will make the same mistake again."