ISTANBUL – A Turkish boat that became an international symbol of anti-Israeli activism has dropped out of a Gaza-bound flotilla that plans to set sail for the Palestinian territory at the end of this month, organizers said Friday.
The withdrawal of the Mavi Marmara ferry from the convoy that aims to break Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza Strip removes a potential flashpoint for confrontation. Last year, nine activists died in a botched Israeli commando operation on the Turkish ship during a similar flotilla, with each side accusing the other of starting the violence.
Israel has warned that it will not allow any more ships to break its naval blockade, and said without providing details that security forces have adopted new tactics since last years' raid in an effort to limit casualties.
IHH, the Islamic aid group in Turkey that refitted the Mavi Marmara after Israel returned it following the raid, said technical problems prevented it from joining 10 other ships that will head for Gaza from European ports on June 25. The original plan was to sail around the first anniversary of the Israeli raid before dawn on May 31, 2010.
"We did not want the flotilla to be postponed again," IHH president Bulent Yildirim said. "When we fix the Mavi Marmara, our journey will continue. I hope it will not take a long time."
Organizers said their decision to exclude the Turkish boat was not a response to appeals from any government. Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned the Israeli blockade and said the Mavi Marmara had the right to sail, but urged activists "to act more carefully and not take steps that could be exploited" by Israel.
He also said non-governmental groups should "take into account" that Egypt's new military rulers had opened Gaza's main gateway to the world, the Rafah terminal, thereby ending a four-year blockade of Gaza that was imposed in coordination with Israel.
Turkey demands that Israel apologize and pay compensation for last year's flotilla raid, but the possibility of a diplomatic confrontation over a second flotilla could divert Turkey's focus on problems with neighboring Syria. The Turkish government is sheltering nearly 10,000 Syrians who have fled across the border to escape a crackdown on an uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Yildirim said pro-Palestinian activists from his group would board other ships in the Gaza-bound flotilla, which includes an American boat, a 40-member Canadian ship and a cargo vessel organized by activists from Greece, Sweden and Norway.
Some of the boats are expected to depart from Greece, and Yildirim acknowledged that Greece's financial problems and widespread anger there over tough new austerity measures had posed a challenge to flotilla preparations.
"There are some problems and crises in European countries, so it might be delayed a few days," he said.
Activists describe Israeli restrictions on Gaza's 1.5 million residents as a human rights violation, but Israel says its blockade stops weapons reaching Iran-backed Hamas militants. Israeli eased its land blockade of Gaza after the international furor over the flotilla raid last year.