Pro-Palestinian activists said Tuesday they are in the final stages of organizing a sea convoy to the Gaza Strip, likely to be much bigger than a similar flotilla that was raided a year ago by Israeli forces, leaving nine people dead.
The campaign sets up the possibility of another showdown with Israel, which eased its land blockade of Gaza following the international furor over the raid, but is gearing up to thwart any attempt to breach its blockade off the Gaza coast.
Eight Turks and one Turkish-American died in the botched commando operation on a Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, that was part of the flotilla on May 31, 2010. The incident drew world attention to the humanitarian situation in Gaza and plunged ties between former allies Israel and Turkey to a new low.
Activists on the boat said they acted in self-defense in international waters during the melee, but Israel says troops opened fire after coming under assault by men with clubs and axes as they rappelled from helicopters during the nighttime raid onto the ship's deck. Seven Israeli soldiers were wounded.
Huseyin Oruc, a spokesman for IHH _ an Islamic aid group that operates the Mavi Marmara _ said this time an international coalition of 22 non-governmental groups hopes to send 15 vessels with up to 1,500 people. Last year, six ships and about half that number participated.
The target date for departure of the new flotilla is the first anniversary of the raid, but it could be delayed, partly because it clashes with Turkish election campaigning. Organizers say the new effort includes activists from Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America, Canada and the United States.
The Mavi Marmara was seized during the raid along with five other ships and docked in Israel, where it was thoroughly searched. On being returned to Turkey in August it was renovated by activists for the new flotilla. The boat has since become an icon for the IHH, which hands out small plastic models of the ship, emblazoned with the Turkish and Palestinian flags, to visitors at its headquarters.
"Everybody is getting ready," Oruc said in an interview with The Associated Press at the Istanbul office. He predicted that Israel, mindful of negative fallout from last year's raid, would not try a similar operation this year.
IHH is a Turkish acronym that means Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, and many of its regional missions are aimed at helping Palestinian refugees. Israel has accused the group of terrorist links, though it is not on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
Israel has vehemently defended its land and sea blockade of Gaza, saying it prevents weapons from reaching Iran-backed Hamas militants who violently seized control of the territory in 2007. Last month, Israel intercepted a cargo ship in the Mediterranean that it said was carrying arms for Hamas.
Israeli military officials say naval forces have been busy preparing for the new flotilla for weeks. They said the navy is taking the flotilla very seriously, but plans to use different tactics this time around. They declined to elaborate, but said the goal is to stop the flotilla while avoiding casualties.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the operation.
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said a recent conference of donors to the Palestinians had called on all parties to send any humanitarian aid through land crossings.
"People coming by sea are doing it as a provocation and are looking for violent confrontation. We call on all relevant parties to display responsibility and shun violence," said Palmor, noting aid for the region is provided by the United Nations, international groups and through the Palestinian Authority.
"There is no reason to try to circumvent the existing channels," he said.
Espen Goffeng, an activist in Norway, said the target for departure of the new flotilla was "early summer," and that activists might finalize the date at a meeting in Europe in early May.
"It's not like a march up the street," he said by telephone. "We need to buy boats, we need to buy cargo, we need to move people around, we need hotel rooms, we need food."
Turkey holds parliamentary elections on June 12. IHH, which says it plans to send 100 to 150 people on the flotilla, is inclined to launch its ship after the vote for fear any controversy could disrupt the election debate. The group communicates closely with the Turkish government, but says it does not need "permission" to send its boat to Gaza.
"We can advise, we can say something, but we cannot stop" the flotilla, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald that was published Monday.
Turkey has harshly criticized Israel since the three-week war in Gaza that ended in early 2009. In an April 20 column in The New York Times, however, President Abdullah Gul alluded to Turkey's role as a facilitator of talks between Israel and Syria before the war, saying Turkey wanted to help the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"We are therefore ready to use our full capacity to facilitate constructive negotiations," Gul wrote. "Turkey is ready to play the role it played in the past, once Israel is ready to pursue peace with its neighbors."
Associated Press writer Matti Friedman contributed from Jerusalem.