Three Turkish ships have joined a fleet sailing to the Gaza Strip with construction material and other aid to Palestinians. The ships intend to break an Israeli blockade, a move that an Israeli government spokesman on Thursday called "a cheap political stunt". The action could increase tensions between the strategically allied nations.
The Mavi Marmara led two other Turkish ships out of the Turkish Mediterranean port of Antalya. Their destination - the Gaza Strip which is under an Israeli blockade.
They are joining a fleet of five other cargo and passenger ships carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid and construction supplies and 700 activists to Gaza. The fleet plans to circumvent an Israeli economic blockade on the Palestinian territory, despite Israeli warnings not to do so. Because of that blockade, many buildings damaged during a 2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza have yet to be repaired.
The ships are sailing from Mediterranean ports in Turkey and Europe to a rendezvous point near Cyprus. Pro-Palestinian activists say from there, the fleet will set sail for Gaza by Saturday.
Organizing the Turkish contingent is the Foundation for Human Rights or IHH. Its secretary general, Yasar Kutluay, says the group is determined to deliver the aid.
He says according to the Geneva Convention [Israel] cannot stop a civilian or relief ship that goes to a place of war. Shooting the ship is impossible.
Earlier this year the same foundation tried to break the Gaza blockade by land. Several parliament members with the ruling AK party participated in that failed bid. Israeli security forces say it will stop the flotilla and return activists back to their own countries. But Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu this week expressed support for the ships' mission.
Both in the United Nations and other international platforms, Turkey has made every official attempt to end the embargo. He says the civilians are trying to break the embargo to bring relief to people in Gaza and he hopes there will not be any tension.
Observers say the humanitarian situation facing Palestinians in Gaza remains an extremely sensitive issue for the Turkish government, one of Israel's strategic allies in the region. Experts say many Turkish citizens are outraged about Israel's 2009 offensive there and by its ongoing economic blockade. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a verbal assault on the Israeli President Shimon Peres at last year's economic summit in Davos. Until recently Israel and Turkey enjoyed close military and political cooperation. But now the Turkish leadership often condemns Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
Suat Kiniklioglu, spokesman for the Turkish parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, says the state of bilateral relations is now tied to the fate of Gaza.
"If the current posture of the Israeli government on Gaza continues it would not be difficult to predict that Turkish and Israeli relations will continue to be difficult and fragile," said Suat Kiniklioglu. "So I think we need to brace ourselves for a new period."
But Ankara's humanitarian and human rights concerns have led to charges of hypocrisy from some of its Western allies. Former U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler, who is now president of the Washington-based Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, is a self-described friend of Turkey. But Wexler recently accused the Turkish prime minister of having a double standard.
"Where's the outrage when the prime minister talks about no tolerance for terror? The terror in this region is created by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza," said Robert Wexler. "Where was the outrage for years as there were strikes against civilian targets in Israel?"
Analysts say such criticism even from its U.S. ally carries little weight with the Turkish government. Its tough stance towards Israel plays wells with its grass roots, a key point given that general elections are to be held in a year. And Ankara has already put Tel Aviv on notice that it will be watching very carefully the fate of the ships heading to Gaza. Observers warn a diplomatic storm could be brewing.
The United Nations has urged restraint as pro-Palestinian activists aboard a convoy of aid ships vow to break an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip despite warnings they will be stopped.