Pro-Palestinian activists said on Tuesday that they are in the final stages of organizing their sea convoy to the Gaza Strip, which is planned to be much bigger than last year's flotilla, which was raided by Israeli forces.
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.
Huseyin Oruc, a spokesman for the 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.
On being returned to Turkey in August, the Mavi Marmara 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.
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.
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.
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