International aid flotilla searches for new flags to sail from Turkey to Gaza

Istanbul, Turkey & Washington — Activists from an international flotilla carrying humanitarian aid are applying for new maritime flags to sail to Gaza from Turkey after the flags of two of their ships were removed by Guinea-Bissau authorities last week.

“We will take flags of different countries. We will also apply to Turkey. We will also try to get Turkey’s flag,” Behesti Ismail Songur, head of the Mavi Marmara Association, a group that is part of the international flotilla, told VOA.

“So, this will be a litmus test for all states. We will see who will be brave enough to flag the freedom fleet,” Songur said.

The flotilla is organized by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, which consists of several Turkish and international groups, including the Turkish Islamist Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and the Mavi Marmara Association.


The flotilla has three ships, named Vicdan (conscience in Turkish), Anadolu (Anatolia), and Akdeniz (the Mediterranean).

Anadolu, docked at Turkey’s Iskenderun port in the Mediterranean, was set to transport 5,000 tons of humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the activists were planning to sail to Gaza on the Akdeniz, a ferry, from Istanbul’s Tuzla shipyard. Vicdan, recently acquired by the group, was not part of the planned sailing.

Anadolu and Akdeniz carried Guinea-Bissau flags until last week when the Guinea-Bissau International Ships Registry (GBISR) inspected them and decided to remove the flags.

Flotilla organizers said the GBISR referred to their planned mission to Gaza while informing them about the removal of the flags.

GBISR did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

The flotilla organizers believe that Guinea-Bissau authorities withdrew their flags because of pressure from Israel, which objects to the refusal of the organizers to allow the ships to be inspected for contraband or weapons. But Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo dismissed these allegations Monday. 

Embalo told the Portuguese LUSA News Agency that he never spoke to his Israeli counterpart “about the flagging of ships,” noting that it is not a matter that he would deal with.

“I do not usually talk to the prime minister of Israel; I talk to the president of Israel, a friend I met many years ago. That’s who I have been talking to, but about the war in the Gaza Strip,” Embalo said, adding that he talked with Israeli President Isaac Herzog Sunday.

Mavi Marmara

On April 22 Israel’s Channel 12 television reported that Shayetet 13, the Israeli army’s elite special forces unit, had been preparing to intercept the flotilla, citing the Israel Defense Forces. 

Shayetet 13 was also involved in 2010 when the Mavi Marmara, carrying pro-Palestinian activists including Turkish Islamist IHH, attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza with a flotilla. Israel views the IHH as a terrorist group.

Israeli units boarded the Mavi Marmara with helicopters in international waters, killing nine activists. At least seven Israeli soldiers were injured as activists attacked them with clubs, knives and pipes. 

According to a report by the Spanish daily El Pais on April 25, the activists, who were set to sail on the Anadolu and the Akdeniz, took basic training in Istanbul in case of an Israeli attack on the flotilla. The training was conducted by Lisa Fithian, an American expert who teaches “peaceful resistance.”

At least 500 international activists were set to sail in the flotilla, including Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, the grandson of late South African President Nelson Mandela; Ada Colau, former mayor of Barcelona; and Ann Wright, a former U.S. Army colonel and diplomat who resigned from the State Department in opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led military invasion into Iraq. 

Wright, who also participated in the Mavi Marmara voyage in 2010, accused the U.S. of pressuring the current flotilla to prevent it from sailing.

“The U.S. is very complicit in trying to stop the Gaza flotilla,” Wright said, referring to a letter to U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken signed by 20 members of Congress last week.

In the letter, members of the U.S. House of Representatives said they were “gravely concerned by the reported ‘Freedom Flotilla Coalition,’ which plans to breach the established security perimeter with an unknown number of ships to deliver aid to Gaza.”

“The flotilla, led in part by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) — which has close ties with the Turkish government and has previously raised funds for Hamas — intends to bypass established aid channels and refuse to allow Israeli inspection of their cargo, casting doubt on the nature of the mission,” the letter stated.

The House members also called on Blinken “to engage directly with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government to prevent or delay the flotilla’s departure and ensure that all shipments to Gaza are vetted and in compliance with international standards for humanitarian assistance.”

Wright hopes Erdogan will support the flotilla. Erdogan and Turkish government officials have not commented publicly on the flotilla.

Erdogan hosted Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul last month, and Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan announced on Wednesday that Ankara has decided to join South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service with contributions by Portuguese Service.

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