Turkey to the rescue, or is the new Gaza flotilla a provocation?

Rather than saving Palestinian lives, the maritime aid convoy could be set for another confrontation at sea with Israeli forces

Israeli forces approach one of six ships bound for Gaza in the Mediterranean Sea on May 31, 2010. Reuters
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Fourteen years ago next month, six ships dubbed the Gaza Freedom Flotilla entered Eastern Mediterranean waters seeking to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza by delivering aid and supplies. Led by the Turkish government-backed aid group IHH, the ships, also from Greece, the US and Cambodia, ignored Israel’s inspections request and pressed on to the coast.

Israeli forces soon waved down and boarded the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, and ended up opening fire on its crew, killing 10 Turks. The convoy was a success on one count, as Israel eased its blockade in the wake of the tragic incident. But Turkey-Israel relations collapsed, and they only began to recover last year.

That all ended with Hamas’s horrifying October 7 assault. Turkey has since repeatedly denounced Israeli aggressions and vowed to support Palestinians. That support has in recent days shifted from largely rhetorical to more substantive, most notably in the case of plans for a second Gaza flotilla, with IHH again leading an international coalition.

With the ships scheduled to set sail as soon as early this week, the key question, assuming Ankara goes ahead with it, is how will it play out if Israel again refuses to give way.

The need for more food is clear. After Israel’s deadly, early April strikes on a convoy for the aid group World Central Kitchen, the NGO pulled out of Gaza. With UAE support, WCK had emerged as one of the more efficient aid providers, setting up a logistics facility in Cyprus and shipping to a jetty built from rubble on the Gazan coast.

Its pull-out significantly reduced the available food in Gaza, and it wasn’t alone. The next day, Anera, one of the larger aid groups in Gaza, announced that it too would suspend aid due to security risks. Toss in the hugely reduced role of Gaza’s largest aid organisation, UNRWA, and Gazans were left on the edge of an abyss.

Ankara has moved ahead with its aid plans, signalling a more hawkish stance on Israel that’s partially about domestic politics

Several world leaders were quick to respond. After French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said the international community should impose sanctions on Israel if it failed to open more aid crossings, US President Joe Biden threatened to withhold US military support if Israel failed to ensure adequate aid.

This seemed to force Israel’s hand. More than 1,200 aid trucks entered Gaza in a three-day period last week, according to Israel, though the UN put the total at about half that. (Before the war, an average of 500 trucks entered Gaza every day.) Israel also opened a new aid crossing in the north, through which the UAE sent 17 trucks of aid on Friday, in addition to its joint air-drop with Egypt.

Yet with Israel now more focused on the Iranian threat, the situation remains potentially catastrophic; much of Gaza’s largely displaced population of two million remains desperately hungry. Prominent observers, including USAID chief Samantha Power and food security expert Anita Kirschenbaum, argue that much of the enclave is already experiencing famine.

Ankara has moved ahead with its aid plans, signalling a more hawkish stance on Israel that’s partially about domestic politics. The Islamist New Welfare Party snatched a chunk of the governing AKP’s voters in last month’s elections after campaigning against the government’s support of continued trade with Israel and failure to do enough to support Palestinians.

The AKP may now be responding. Last week, the Turkish Red Crescent sent its ninth and largest aid ship to Gaza, loaded with 3,000 tonnes of food, clothing and medical goods, and Ankara announced that it would halt the export to Israel of more than 50 products that could have military uses, including steel and aluminium.

This shift might also boost Turkey’s regional standing. A new paper by Turkish scholar Sinem Adar highlights Turkey’s increased popularity across the Middle East and North Africa under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ms Adar cites Ankara’s increased commitment to free trade deals and humanitarian aid in countries ranging from Morocco to Somalia.

Tourist arrivals from Arab countries to Turkey have increased nine-fold in the AKP era, with Gulf citizens leading the way. More Arab students attend college in Turkey today and Ankara has over the past decade welcomed about five million refugees, mostly Syrians. There’s also Turkey’s growing hard power, led by its widely praised TB2 drones, as well as its confrontational rhetoric towards the West and its allies.

For years, Turkish leaders have denounced neo-colonialism and defended persecuted Muslims, particularly in Palestine. “Humanity must prevent further violations of international law in Gaza,” Mr Erdogan wrote to Pope Francis on the weekend.

With the US military building a pier on the Gazan coast to receive aid ships, a new Gaza flotilla would be a thumb in the eye of Washington and Israel, and it could thrust Turkey to the fore after being a minor player during the first six months of the war. But this raises a troubling question: might this flotilla be more about grabbing the spotlight than doing good?

IHH chief Bulent Yildirim says his coalition has supporters from a dozen countries, including the US, Canada, the UK and Germany, and aims to deliver 5,500 tonnes of food, clothing and medical supplies. Mr Yildirim adds that one boat will carry activists, including Che Guevara’s daughter and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, though how the presence of such political figures might boost aid delivery is unclear.

On its website the flotilla coalition says it rejects Israeli control of aid and would refuse inspections, which seems an intentional provocation. Israel outlawed IHH in 2008, and last September intercepted a shipment from Turkey to Gaza that included 16 tonnes of ammonium chloride, which can be used to make rocket fuel.

Turkish leaders have in recent months regularly expressed support for Hamas, and Israel seems to take such statements at face value. Turkey was set to be among a group of 10 countries making end-of-Ramadan aid drops into Gaza last week, but the Israeli army vetoed its involvement at the last minute. Put it all together and the chance of an IHH-led flotilla reaching Gaza peacefully after refusing Israeli inspections is close to zero.

A bold maritime aid convoy should be about saving lives. But the indications point to another confrontation at sea, which may have the potential to boost Ankara’s domestic and regional profile, but is unlikely to help the desperate people of Gaza.

Published: April 15, 2024, 3:00 PM