Standing on the deck of the Mavi Marmara recently, a Greek activist presented the head of Turkey’s Islamic Humanitarian Relief Foundation, sponsor of the Gaza-Strip-bound aid ship, with a model of an ancient Cretan vessel.
“This is to remind us that the Mediterranean has been a free sea for ships to navigate in for 3,000 years,” Vangelis Pissias declared to applause from about a hundred supporters crowded onto the boat.
How Turkey will define itself in relationship to that past, however, remains an open question.
The Mavi Marmara, currently moored in Istanbul’s Kasimpasha boatyard for repairs, shot to worldwide prominence in May 2010 as part of a flotilla attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. A clash between Israeli commandos and activists left nine people on board the Mavi Marmara dead.
The violent debacle sparked off a war of words between Turkey and Israel that prompted Ankara to withhold appointing a replacement ambassador to Tel Aviv.
This year, participants in the so-called Freedom Flotilla have swollen to 1,500 people on 15 boats from around the Mediterranean Sea. They will attempt, at the end of this month, again to converge upon Gaza. They hope a non-violent approach will force Israel to let the ships through, just as the mostly peaceful demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia prompted their presidents’ resignation.
Flotilla organizers speak of coordinating their sailing toward Palestine with simultaneous land convoys. Most Turks appear to support this mission. In a March poll by Ankara’s Metro Poll, 65 percent of 2,000 respondents named Israel and the United States as their main enemies.
On the home front, the outpouring of support for the Mavi Marmara has underlined a cultural divide, in which Turks seek to reconcile the growing influence of the Islamic faithful with the Turkish republic’s secular roots. Many secular Turks have accused the Islam-influenced governing Justice and Development Party of using the flotilla to score political points against Israel, and to raise its profile both domestically and with Arab allies with which it maintains lucrative business deals.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyyip Erdoğan has lashed out at detractors, calling one of the most prominent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party, a “sycophant” who refuses to criticize “the (Israeli) Mediterranean pirates.”
Preparations for the Mavi Marmara’s departure appear intended to minimize any suggestion that the ship is linked to Islamic extremism. In an effort to avoid last year’s perception that Turkish radicals made up the bulk of the Mavi Marmara’s passengers, Turks and foreign activists will be mixed together on this voyage.
And, in a nod to the occasional success of nonviolent tactics during the Arab Spring, all activists participating in the flotilla are receiving nonviolence training. Training includes passive resistance exercises such as linking arms and sitting around the captain’s wheelhouse to obstruct its taking, sitting on top of deck covers to block access to the cabins below, and resisting removal through “going limp.”
One organizer conceded, though, that “however much training you give some people, when it comes down to [a fight], they will not be able to control themselves.”
Despite the apparent potential for violence, Turkish officials say they will not intervene to prevent the Mavi Marmara from sailing. On June 5, President Abdullah Gül dismissed appeals for the government to block the ship’s departure. “It is out of the question for the state to organize or direct NGOs toward anything. NGOs make their own decisions,” Hürriyet Daily News quoted Gül as saying.
Appeals from Israel have not received a welcoming ear in Ankara. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davitoglu has publicly cautioned Israel that “Turkey will give the necessary response to any repeated act of provocation by Israel on the high seas.”
No indication exists that Israel intends to yield easily. Regional news outlets have reported that members of the elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit are receiving hand-to-hand combat training and adapting their rappelling techniques for swooping onto the ship. The deaths of 23 Palestinians and Syrians attempting to enter Israel’s Golan Heights on June 5, the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, have helped ratchet up tension.
Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist.