Michel Sailhan, AFP
Last updated: October 19, 2011

Israel-Turkey ties threatened by new Gaza flotilla

A new aid flotilla aiming to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip threatens to deal a fresh blow to Turkish-Israeli ties, a year after a bloody Israeli seizure of a Turkish activist ship.

Bilateral relations remain stuck in crisis after several fence-mending meetings between the one-time allies over the past year failed to yield results, a Turkish diplomat told AFP.

The two countries, he said, "have failed to reach an agreement" also on reconciliation proposals by a UN commission investigating the deadly Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara ferry last year.

Moreover, tensions could shoot up again as a new aid flotilla is getting ready to depart for Gaza in June in another attempt to break the blockade.

At least "a dozen boats carrying supplies and passengers from several European ports, including Marseille, will sail to Gaza in the third week of June," said Quassima Ibn Salah from the Turkish Islamist charity IHH, which spearheaded last year's bid.

The Mavi Marmara will take part in the new venture as well, but it is unclear whether it would depart from Turkey, she added.

The Greek and Swedish branches of the Ship to Gaza association, and various organisations from Italy, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland will join the new fleet dubbed "Freedom Flotilla II."

Israel has already asked Turkey and the European Union to stop the convoy.

On Monday, Israeli forces fired warning shots at a Malaysian aid ship as it approached Gaza, forcing the vessel to retreat to Egypt, organisers and the Israeli military said.

On May 31 last year, Israeli marines swarmed aboard the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of an international aid flotilla bound for Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists in international waters and plunging relations with Ankara into deep crisis.

The bloodshed provoked worldwide condemnation and in August, UN chief Ban Ki-moon set up an international commission to investigate the raid.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday denied reports that Ankara was considering withdrawing from the panel, but signalled discontent with the body's apparent efforts to find a mid-way between Turkey and Israel.

"I have told UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that this is not a commission to reconcile Turkey and Israel but to do justice... We do not need a mediator," Anatolia news agency quoted Davutoglu as saying.

He warned that Turkey's "reaction will not be positive" if the commission's findings contradict an earlier report by the UN Human Rights Council, which severely criticised the Jewish state.

"If they (Israel) desire our friendship, the criteria are obvious," Davutoglu said, referring to Turkish demands for an apology and compensation.

The apology demand was the main issue when Turkish and Israeli officials met in Geneva in December in a bid to overcome the crisis, officials said at the time.

The same point of contention has continued to block fence-mending efforts since then, another Turkish diplomat said.

Observers see little chance of any imminent reconciliation as Turkey heads to general elections on June 12 and the ruling Justice and Development Party, seeking a third straight term in power, has heightened nationalist rhetoric.

Following the bloodshed last year, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said ties with Israel would "never be the same again" as Ankara immediately recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and is yet to send him back.

Ankara sees Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as the man responsible for the failure of the Geneva talks.

Turkey's Islamist-rooted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known for his frequent outbursts against the Jewish state, said in January that Israel should "get rid of" Lieberman.

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