As Israel sends home about 700 activists detained in a deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, a clearer picture is emerging of the wide-ranging backgrounds of those involved and their motivations. Middle East analysts say that from its outset, the floating protest of Israel's blockade of Gaza was designed to draw international attention to the situation there.
George Washington University political scientist Nathan Brown says that while the aid flotilla consisted of six ships and carried hundreds of activists from countries around the globe, one could call the floating convoy a semi-official project of the Turkish government.
"It clearly had very high backing from the current Turkish government, sort of led by a conservative-Islamist coalition," Brown said. "But it included a whole host of activists from different countries, European countries; there were some Americans on board, former diplomats, [members of the] International Solidarity Movement, which is sort of more of a younger movement -- for the most part consisting of people who are interested in backing the Palestinian cause."
Brown notes that some of the boats in the convoy set sail from Turkey, and that the Turkish government recently has taken the lead in trying to get humanitarian supplies into Gaza.
Three of the six boats -- including the Mavi Marma -- are flagged in Turkey. A prime backer of the flotilla was a Turkish aid group that Israel has accused of being a front and fundraising arm for Hamas, the Islamist militia that now runs Gaza. The aid group denies the allegations.
The United States and the European Union regard Hamas as a terrorist organization.
The spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mark Regev, says the aid group -- The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, which is known by its Turkish acronym IHH -- is involved with terrorists.
"The IHH is also documented by Western governments; the Turkish government itself has conducted raids in the past against IHH facilities," the Israeli spokesman said. "They are known for their extremist politics, their support for and connections with terrorist organizations."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Edward Peck was one of a wide range of individuals in the convoy. He says the mission was an attempt to deliver aid and to help the Israeli government see the advantages of letting relief materials into the Gaza Strip.
"We went there, it was humanitarian; it was not political, religious or hostile. We were not armed. We were pacifist, we were activists. Let these people free. My reaction is disappointment," Peck said.
Organizers say the boats involved in the convoy were carrying about 10,000 tons of aid and politicians from more than 40 countries. In addition to the IHH, the Free Gaza Movement was also a key organizer of the flotilla.
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his lawmakers at the parliament in Ankara, June 1, 2010, a day after Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of international peace activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip on Mo
George Washington University's Nathan Brown says he does not believe that the intent of the flotilla was to incite violence, especially given the perceived support it had from the Turkish government. He says it was an attempt to shift international attention to the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
"They [i.e., the Turkish government] certainly were giving their support to an effort to change the international spin on the situation in Gaza, changing it, as I say, from a security situation -- you have got a terrorist group in Gaza, kind of the way that Israel presents it -- to one in which you have got a population under siege," Brown said.
But Reva Bhalla, a senior Middle East analyst for the private intelligence firm STRATFOR, says the flotilla's objective was clear -- to create an international incident.
"This was not just about transferring humanitarian aid," Bhalla said. "And you could see that very clearly just in the media coverage of the issue."
Bhalla notes that there were reporters on board the boats -- including from al-Jazeera -- waiting to film everything as it was playing out.
"So in effect, this not only undermined Israel's blockade of Gaza, but it also gave enormous street credibility to the Turks, who have been surging their influence throughout this region," Bhalla said.
Bhalla says that although it is unclear how close the connections are between the convoy and the Turkish government, there were members of Turkey's ruling party who were expected to be on the ships, but at the last minute decided not to go.