Israel's navy trains for second major Gaza flotilla

Another Gaza flotilla will set sail next month with the Mavi Marmara flagship, which Israeli navy commandos raided last year, killing nine activists in violent clashes.

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    A Palestinian boy leans on a pole decorated with a Turkish flag at a memorial site in memory of nine Turkish activists killed in a deadly raid by Israeli army on a Turkish aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip last year, in Gaza City, on Tuesday, May 31. The Islamic militant group Hamas has unveiled a memorial for nine activists killed last year in an Israeli raid on an international flotilla seeking to break a blockade of the Gaza Strip.
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The day before the one-year anniversary of the international flotilla that aimed to break the Israeli naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, international activists announced plans for another flotilla at the end of June.

The organizer of the flotilla will once again be the Turkish Islamic group IHH (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief), and the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the 2010 flotilla, will participate. According to Agence France-Presse, 1,500 people from about 100 different countries will be on board the ships, which will carry humanitarian aid, medical equipment, school supplies, and construction materials.

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Last year's flotilla ended with the death of nine activists when the Israeli navy intercepted and clashed with the Mavi Marmara. The confrontation sparked international condemnation and dealt a severe blow to Israeli-Turkish relations. There was also an uproar in Israel over the lack of preparation for the incident, both with how to respond militarily and how to handle the public relations disaster of an attack on a self-described humanitarian group – albeit one the Israeli military said armed itself with knives and makeshift clubs.

The Monitor reported in June 2010, a few days after the first flotilla, that Israelis were "frustrated with their leaders for walking into what they say was a transparent 'trap'' of confrontation with pro-Palestinian activists – and botching the mission."

The Israeli government asked that the Israeli navy be prepared well in advance this time. The Jerusalem Post reports that the navy has been training with the air force, with a close eye on lessons from last year's operation. A senior naval officer told the Post that Israel had prepared several "surprises" for the flotilla ships and that they would use force to "neutralize" the ships and attacks if necessary.

Haaretz reports that Israel has mobilized reserve forces in expectation of a large number of vessels and the need for reinforcements. It has also held "takeover drills" and upped its intelligence-gathering efforts on the flotilla.

The focus has been on riot control measures in hopes of avoiding the need to use force – an option Israel hasn't ruled out, although it says it will be the last resort. "Israeli defense sources said recently that despite addressing flaws in the previous flotilla takeover, there is no alternative to taking over the boats and protesters by force - barring an agreement that would cancel the flotilla," according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned Israel not to "repeat the same mistake" – use force against the flotilla – this year when the next flotilla sets sail, according to Turkish newspaper The Hurriyet Daily News.

But Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that IHH was deliberately provoking Israel and setting the stage for a confrontation, making it responsible for any clashes that happen, Israeli newspaper Ynet reports. The activists say that the Mavi Marmara is a "peace boat" and should not be attacked.

Israel's naval blockade on Gaza has been in place since 2007. It prevents Gazan fisherman from going further than three kilometers (about 1.8 miles) from shore, and international ships cannot enter waters within 20 km (about 12.4 miles) of the Gazan shore, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The flotilla's plans have not changed despite Egypt's decision to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which will make it possible for people and goods to move freely between Egypt and Gaza, according to Agence France-Presse.

"While we wholeheartedly welcome the decision of the Egyptian government to regularly operate the Rafah crossing... Israel's unlawful blockade remains in effect," Vangelis Pisias, the Greek coordinator of the initiative, told reporters.

"Israel still prevents Palestinians from using their sea, and controls and severely restricts all goods entering and exiting Gaza. As such, we must continue to challenge this blockade."

Ten thousand people marched in downtown Istanbul on Monday to commemorate the nine killed in the Mavi Marmara raid. Eight of them were Turkish, and one was a Turkish American.

And the Associated Press reports that Hamas today unveiled a memorial at Gaza's harbor to the nine killed.

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