x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Turkey and Israel set for new clash over second Gaza aid flotilla

Gaza¿s land border might be open now, but flotilla activists vow to take to the water again after last year's flotilla provoked a deadly attack from Israel.

ISTANBUL // A Turkish aid group yesterday said plans for a second flotilla to the Gaza Strip were set to go ahead next month despite the opening of Egypt's land border into the blockaded territory.

The group, known as the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, or IHH, said the new attempt to break the Israeli sea blockade would include 15 ships, twice as many as the first flotilla that embarked one year ago.

The size of the new campaign, and the deadly violence that rocked the first flotilla, have raised fears of a new round of confrontation between Turkey and Israel.

A year ago, nine IHH activists were killed by Israeli commandos during a raid in international waters aimed at stopping the six aid ships sailing towards Gaza. The incident on May 30, 2010, sharply increased tensions between Turkey and Israel.

Even so, Huseyin Oruc, deputy chairman of the IHH, said yesterday his organisation was not giving up the project and have scheduled it for late June.

"Preparations are continuing," Mr Oruc said. Asked whether there were plans to have the new flotilla dock in Egypt, where the Rafah border crossing into Gaza was opened last weekend, or whether the ships would sail straight to Gaza itself, he replied: "To Gaza."

"The opening of Rafah is very important," Mr Oruc said. "But we will have to see under which conditions it will be open."

Among the uncertainties is whether more goods and construction material can enter the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Israel is concerned that weapons coming from Egypt could reach Hamas, the Islamist group ruling Gaza. Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union, but not Turkey.

"Those lands, those waters belong to the Palestinians. The Israeli embargo is illegal," Mr Oruc said.

"We want Israel to lift the embargo completely." Israel accuses the IHH of being a radical Islamist organisation, an allegation the IHH denies.

The group called on its supporters to gather in central Istanbul on Sunday night to commemorate the anniversary of the Israeli attack, described as the "Mavi Marmara massacre" on the IHH website.

The Mavi Marmara, the ship that was attacked by the Israeli forces last year, is scheduled to be part of the new flotilla in June. That fleet will be made up of ships from Western European nations, the IHH said.

The Turkish government has rejected US demands that it prevent the second flotilla from sailing and has called on Washington to increase pressure on Israel. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, yesterday told the newspaper Radikal that Washington was making a mistake by concentrating on Israel's concerns alone.

In his recent campaign speeches ahead of parliamentary elections on June 12, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pointed to his government's standoff with Israel as an example of new-found national confidence - in line with Turkey's image a rising power in the Middle East.

"Today's Turkey is not one that remains silent to Israel's acts of persecution and acts of piracy," Mr Erdogan told a crowd in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri on the weekend, in a reference to Israel's attack on the Mavi Marmara.

"Today, there is a Turkey that speaks out clearly, that seeks its rights and justice and puts pirates in their place," he was quoted as saying.