Turkish flotilla vessels sail home

‘Mavi Marmara’ released in goodwill gesture to Ankara’

By
August 6, 2010 01:34
3 minute read.
Footage from onboard the Mavi Marmara.

mavi marmara 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Over two months after they took part in a flotilla aimed at breaking the blockade of the Gaza Strip, three Turkish vessels, including the Mavi Marmara, left Israeli ports for Turkey on Thursday in what one senior government official said was an effort at repairing ties with Ankara.

According to a statement issued by the Defense Ministry, the decision to release the vessels to three Turkish towing ships that came to pick them up was based on a decision by the political echelon made last month.

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The statement said that the Foreign Ministry sent a message to the Turkish authorities expressing Jerusalem’s expectation that Ankara would prevent other Turkish vessels from violating the blockade on the Gaza Strip. The message also underlined that Israel transfers equipment and goods to Gaza on an ongoing basis via the land crossings, in a manner “acceptable to the international community and which is anchored in recognized agreements.”

A senior government official said the decision to release the ships was significant for the Turks, who view it as an important gesture.

“This is a confidence-building measure, with the idea being to bring the relations back on track.”

The government’s decision earlier this week to cooperate with the panel set up by the UN’s secretary-general to probe May 31’s flotilla incident was also widely viewed as an attempt to improve the atmosphere with Turkey.

Government officials have said that in the past few weeks, and in what appears to be a sign of Turkey trying to tamp down the tension, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have noticeably toned down their anti-Israel rhetoric.

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The decision to release the ships was made last month, a few days after the Prime Minister Office’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau lifted an advisory against travel to Turkey. Initial indications, however, do not show Israelis returning to Turkey in droves.

According to an AFP report, the Turkish Tourism Ministry reported that only 2,605 Israelis visited Turkey in June 2010 – the month after the flotilla incident – compared to 27,289 in June 2009.

In the first half of 2010, 75,071 Israelis came to Turkey, down around 18 percent from the 91,450 Israeli citizens who went there during the first half of 2009. The figures show that already in 2009, after Turkey’s extremely harsh criticism of Israel following Operation Cast Lead, tourism dropped dramatically, with only 311,582 Israeli tourists that year, a 44% drop from the 558,183 Israelis who traveled there in 2008.

Even as the Turkish ships were being released, a new coalition of radical left groups – including the Turkish IHH and the Free Gaza Movement – began organizing to send another flotilla.

Huwaida Arraf, Mattias Gardell, Dror Feiler and Greta Berlin – all involved in May’s flotilla – issued a statement from Stockholm on Tuesday saying, “We are continuing our global, grassroots effort to stand up to Israel’s ongoing intransigence, including planning our next direct action, plans to enlarge our coalition to include groups from around the world who want to join us, as well as intensify our efforts to mobilize for the new Freedom Flotilla 2.

“Israel’s alleged easing of the closure on Gaza has been purely cosmetic, intended only to deflect criticism from its illegal policies,” the statement read.

“Expanding the list of items permitted into Gaza does not address the most fundamental concern of the people there – freedom of movement.”

The group is demanding “an immediate and complete lifting of the closure, including a lifting of the travel ban as well as the ban on exports from Gaza.”

Israeli officials said they were closely following attempts to organize yet another, even larger, flotilla.

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