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Freedom Flotilla activists determined to set sail to Gaza despite Israeli threats

Civil groups prepare four ships to break Gaza siege, but are conscious Israel might target them as it did the Mavi Marmara in 2010
The Akdeniz ship anchored in Istanbul's Tuzla, on Friday, 19 April 2024 (MEE/Yusuf Selman Inanc)
The Akdeniz ship anchored in Istanbul's Tuzla, on Friday, 19 April 2024 (MEE/Yusuf Selman Inanc)
By Yusuf Selman Inanc in Istanbul

A group of human rights organisations is set to send a flotilla of four ships to Gaza from Istanbul next week, in a challenge to Israel’s blockade on the Palestinian enclave, activists announced on Friday.

Members of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC) spoke from a dockyard in Istanbul’s Tuzla, on board the Akdeniz ship, one of the four vessels that will embark on the journey. They expressed determination to reach Gaza despite Israel’s threats.

The press conference was attended by activists from various civil society organisations, including Ann Wright and Huwaida Arraf from the US Boat to Gaza, Wendy Goldsmith from the Canada Boat to Gaza, Torstein Dahle from FFC Norway, Zaher Birawi from International Committee for Breaking the Siege on Gaza, Zohar Chamberlain Regev from FFC, Carlos Trotta from Doctors Without Borders, Fauziah Mohd Hasan from Malaysia My Care, Medea Benjamin from the US group Code Pink, and Suzanne Adely from the US National Lawyers Guild.

This initiative evokes memories of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 when an attempt to break the Israeli siege on Gaza resulted in the deaths of ten people after the Israeli army raided the ship in international waters. The incident strained Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations significantly.

This time, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the primary organiser of the coalition, has undertaken extensive preparations, including the acquisition of three ships.

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Two ships are designated for activists, while a third, currently docked in Turkey’s Iskenderun, will carry 5.5 tonnes of humanitarian aid.

Another ship is expected to join from Italy. Approximately 1,000 people will participate in the voyage, accompanied by 100 journalists with internet and satellite connections.

'People are eager to sail to Gaza and be part of this historic mission'

-Mustafa Ozbek, Humanitarian Relief Foundation

While the coalition aims to set off next week, the issue of official permission remains unclear. "We are still negotiating with Turkish officials," said Mustafa Ozbek, a media official at IHH, adding that permission from Cyprus would not be necessary.

Despite ongoing preparations, it is uncertain when or if the ships will set sail. While the Turkish government maintains silence, Israeli officials have expressed hope that the attempt will be indefinitely postponed. Israel has designated IHH as a "terror organisation" since 2008.

However, Turkish sources familiar with the matter indicate that the flotilla may have a chance to sail, though its arrival in Gaza is uncertain.

The sources told MEE that Turkish officials are wary of the flotilla entering Israeli maritime waters, fearing further complications in bilateral relations.

The Turkish government believes it has made significant efforts to end the conflict, including imposing limitations on exports to Israel that could support its defence industry during the ongoing war, the sources pointed out.

The Turkish foreign ministry has not responded to MEE’s questions regarding the planned flotilla. 

'No way we can't reach Gaza'

IHH's Ozbek believes 24 April would be a realistic departure date, but various technical challenges need addressing, such as ship maintenance, crew recruitment, additional bedspace provision, and stocking up on food, drinks and other essentials.

Ann Wright, a former US Army colonel who resigned in 2003 due to her opposition to the invasion of Iraq, told MEE that they are determined to accomplish their mission. “We know that the Turkish government is working hard diplomatically and in the humanitarian field. Yet, we expect their support and that of other governments for our mission,” she said. 

'According to international law, Israel has no right to raid a ship filled with civilians and humanitarian aid'

Ann Wright, a former US Army colonel

“There is no way that we can't sail. There is no way that we can't reach Gaza,” she added. 

Referring to the Mavi Marmara raid by the Israeli army, Wright said, “In case of such an attack, we’ll expect all governments to uphold international law. According to international law, Israel has no right to raid a ship filled with civilians and humanitarian aid.” 

Huwaida Arraf, a human rights lawyer, also said, “There is the possibility that Israel might attack us. We just hope they won’t, as the whole world would be watching us. Even if they do, we’ll adopt non-violent resistance.” 

As for the possibility of rerouting the ships to alternative destinations like Egypt, Wright stated they would assess the situation at that time.

“We know that these are very dangerous times for the region. However, the people of Palestine are in danger, too. Therefore, the escalation between Iran and Israel, for instance, will have no impact on our decision.”

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Meanwhile, as coalition members engaged with the press, intensive work continued aboard the Akdeniz ship.

Originally a cruise liner adorned with images of Italian, Greek, and Montenegrin shores, the Akdeniz is undergoing a comprehensive transformation.

Hall names have been changed to evoke themes of freedom, while a restaurant has been renamed "libertas," meaning liberty in Latin.

Each room is being redecorated to accommodate at least two activists, and a former restaurant has been repurposed into a press room equipped with around-the-clock internet and satellite connectivity for journalists.

“This ship has eight stories, with the capacity to accommodate 800 people. It has all required amenities for the safety of the activists,” Ozbek said.

“There is tremendous interest in participating in the flotilla coalition. We have received 12,000 applications via the internet from dozens of countries. People are eager to sail to Gaza and be part of this historic mission,” he said.

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