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Year on from deadly raid, next Gaza flotilla planned

May 30, 2011 9:26 P.M. (Updated: May 31, 2011 12:32 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- A year after Israeli marines stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine and drawing worldwide condemnation, Israel finds itself in even deeper diplomatic water.

On May 31 2010, troops staged a pre-dawn raid on six ships in international waters seeking to break Israel's illegal naval blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The attack plunged Israel's already cool relationship with Ankara into crisis.

Eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American national were killed during the raid.

The bloodshed provoked worldwide condemnation and played a major role in deepening Israel's isolation on the international stage.

One year on, and with the relationship with Turkey still ice-bound, Israel is facing another potential crisis as a second "Freedom Flotilla" -- this time comprising 15 ships -- prepares to sail for the tiny Palestinian enclave at the end of June.

IHH, the Istanbul-based Islamist charity that spearheaded the 2010 mission, says around 1,500 activists from more than 100 countries will participate in the fresh attempt to break the naval blockade on Gaza that Israel imposed in 2006.

The flagship Mavi Marmara, a passenger ferry that was the scene of the bloodiest confrontations last year, will also take part in the new venture.

"If you have a bit of conscience, you have to allow this second fleet," IHH head Bulent Yildirim said earlier this month.

"Otherwise, everything you do will turn against you."

Last year's debacle, which ended up forcing Israel to ease its siege on Gaza, was seized upon by pro-Palestinian activists as an effective way of putting pressure on Israel.

Since then, there have been a number of copycat attempts to reach Gaza.

The latest was just two weeks ago, when Israeli forces fired warning shots toward a Malaysian aid ship as it approached Gaza, forcing the vessel to retreat to Egypt.

Turkey, which is still demanding that Israel apologize and compensate the victims' families for last May's bloodshed, has warned Tel Aviv against using force against the new flotilla.

"It should be known that Turkey will give the necessary response to any repeated act of provocation by Israel on the high seas," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkey's NTV television.

Israel sees attempts to breach the naval blockade as political rather than genuinely humanitarian. It has repeatedly offered to transfer any bona fide aid shipments directly to Gaza -- as long as it can inspect the cargo to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas and other militant groups.

"The idea of another flotilla is both unnecessary and a provocation and we've called upon all fair-minded governments to do what they can to prevent another such occurrence," Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told AFP.

"Israel will continue to make sure, to the best of our ability, that the only cargo that reaches Gaza has been inspected to ensure that it does not contain weaponry," he said.

The cargo of the aid ships is inspected by customs officials in the countries whose ports the vessels depart from, and carry certificates to that effect.

On Saturday, Egypt reopened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, allowing people - except men between 18-40 - to cross freely for the first time in four years, a move hailed by Hamas but criticized by Israel.

Israel imposed a tight blockade on Gaza in June 2006 after militants there snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held.

It was tightened a year later when Hamas seized control of the territory, but the wave of international pressure that followed the flotilla debacle forced Israel to ease some restrictions.

For Israel, the arrival of a new flotilla is part of a broader Palestinian strategy that seeks to chip away at Israel's legitimacy on the international stage.

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