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Turkish activists say new flotilla to challenge Israeli blockade of Gaza

by Daren Butler and Ayla Jean Yackley, Reuters

August 11, 2014 | 11:00 am

<em>Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talks to an injured Palestinian from the Gaza strip as she is carried on a stretcher to an ambulance after the arrival of a group of injured Palestinians at Ankara's Esenboga airport, early August 11, 2014. Photo credit, Umit Bektas/Reuters</em><br />

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talks to an injured Palestinian from the Gaza strip as she is carried on a stretcher to an ambulance after the arrival of a group of injured Palestinians at Ankara's Esenboga airport, early August 11, 2014. Photo credit, Umit Bektas/Reuters

A Turkish aid group said on Monday it would again send ships to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, four years after Israeli commandos stormed its flotilla bound for the Palestinian territory and killed 10 Turks.

The plan looked set to throw a fresh obstacle in the way of efforts to rebuild shattered diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel, just as Ankara launches an "air corridor" carrying wounded Palestinians to Turkey and aid to Gaza.

Three Palestinian women and a male youth were flown from Tel Aviv to Ankara overnight for medical treatment after Turkey held talks on the matter with Israel, the first step of Ankara's bid to evacuate possibly thousands from the Gaza Strip.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu revealed details of the aid initiative last week after a month of bloodshed that has killed 1,910 Palestinians and 67 Israelis.

But any goodwill generated by the move could be jeopardized by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) announcement that a coalition of pro-Palestinian activists from 12 countries had decided to launch a convoy "in the shadow of the latest Israeli aggression on Gaza".

"The Freedom Flotilla Coalition affirmed that, as most governments are complicit, the responsibility falls on civil society to challenge the Israeli blockade on Gaza," it said in a statement after the group met in Istanbul at the weekend.

An IHH spokeswoman did not elaborate. The group will hold a news conference on Tuesday, she said.

Nine Turks died in May 2010 in international waters after Israeli soldiers raided their vessel, the Mavi Marmara, leading a flotilla to break Israel's seven-year blockade of Gaza. A 10th Turkish activist died in May from wounds suffered in the attack.

Formerly allies, Turkey's relationship with Israel had been tense since late 2008 over a previous Israeli military operation against Islamist militants dominating Gaza.

PRO-PALESTINIAN SENTIMENT

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who on Sunday was elected president, has been among the most vocal critics of Israel's conflict with the Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza.

In campaigning ahead of the election, Erdogan had likened Israel's actions in Gaza to those of Hitler and warned it would "drown in the blood it sheds".

Israel, which denounced Erdogan's comments, says its offensive is intended to stop rocket fire from Gaza and to destroy tunnels some of which have been used by gunmen to infiltrate Israel.

Eager to re-establish itself as a powerhouse in a rapidly changing Middle East, Turkey is already sheltering more than a million refugees from the war in Syria and is playing a major role in the development of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Despite crumbling relations with Israel, it also hopes through its ties with the Palestinian authorities to play a part in brokering a long-term settlement in the Gaza Strip.

Pro-Palestinian sentiment runs high in mostly Sunni Muslim Turkey, and protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to demonstrate against Israel's offensive in Gaza.

The four wounded Palestinians arrived in Turkey on Monday a day after Israel and the Palestinians agreed a fresh 72-hour ceasefire.

Osama Al-Najar, spokesman of the health ministry in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, said 60 more wounded people would be flown to Turkey on Monday. He said the Palestinian Authority had helped organize their transfer from Gaza to Israel.

Davutoglu said Turkey planned to bring in some 200 wounded in the first stage of its plan, while Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu said Ankara was ready to send a 60-strong medical team to establish a field hospital in the region if permission is granted.

Turkey's state disaster and emergency authority was to send an initial aid cargo of 3,500 food parcels by plane from Ankara to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on Monday evening as part of the air corridor.

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