Year after Gaza flotilla, Israel faces new storms
A year after Israeli marines stormed a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists and drawing worldwide condemnation, the Jewish state finds itself in even deeper diplomatic water.
The May 31 operation, which saw troops stage a pre-dawn raid on six ships seeking to break the naval blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, plunged Israel's already cool relationship with Ankara into crisis.
The bloodshed provoked worldwide condemnation and played a major role in deepening Israel's isolation on the international stage.
One year on, and with the relationship with Turkey still ice-bound, Israel is facing another potential crisis as a second "Freedom Flotilla" -- this time comprising 15 ships -- prepares to sail for the tiny Palestinian enclave at the end of June.
IHH, the Istanbul-based Islamist charity that spearheaded the 2010 mission, says around 1,500 activists from more than 100 countries will participate in the fresh attempt to break the naval blockade on Gaza that Israel imposed in 2006.
The flagship Mavi Marmara, a passenger ferry that was the scene of the bloodiest confrontations last year, will also take part in the new venture.
"If you have a bit of conscience, you have to allow this second fleet," IHH head Bulent Yildirim said earlier this month.
"Otherwise, everything you do will turn against you."
Last year's debacle, which ended up forcing Israel to ease its blockade on Gaza, was seized upon by pro-Palestinian activists as an effective way of putting pressure on the Jewish state.
Since then, there have been a number of copycat attempts to reach Gaza.
The latest was just two weeks ago, when Israeli forces fired warning shots toward a Malaysian aid ship as it approached Gaza, forcing the vessel to retreat to Egypt.
Turkey, which is still demanding the Jewish state apologise and compensate the victims' families for last May's bloodshed, has warned Israel against using force against the new flotilla.
"It should be known that Turkey will give the necessary response to any repeated act of provocation by Israel on the high seas," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkey's NTV television.
Israel sees attempts to breach the naval blockade as political rather than genuinely humanitarian. It has repeatedly offered to transfer any bona fide aid shipments directly to Gaza -- as long as it can inspect the cargo to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas and other militant groups.
"The idea of another flotilla is both unnecessary and a provocation and we've called upon all fair-minded governments to do what they can to prevent another such occurrence," Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said.
"Israel will continue to make sure, to the best of our ability, that the only cargo that reaches Gaza has been inspected to ensure that it does not contain weaponry," he said.
On Saturday, Egypt reopened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years, a move hailed by Hamas but criticised by Israel.
The Jewish state imposed a tight blockade on Gaza in June 2006 after militants there snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held.
It was tightened a year later when the militant Islamist Hamas movement seized control of the territory, but the wave of international pressure that followed the flotilla debacle forced Israel to ease the restrictions.
For Israel, the arrival of a new flotilla is part of a broader Palestinian strategy that seeks to chip away at the Jewish state's legitimacy on the international stage.
"There's a gradual but incremental increase in the volume of delegitimisation attempts on Israel, in terms of boycotts and so forth," said Jonathan Spyer, a political analyst at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre.
Central to that strategy is a Palestinian bid to win United Nations recognition of their independent state in September, a move that is expected to win massive support.
The strategy is definitely winning the Palestinians psychological points, Spyer said.
"There is a sense that after September, in real terms, that declaration won't mean very much, but in terms of atmospherics against Israel on the international stage, they are growing and they will grow still more after September, and that's not good for Israel."