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Aid ship may stoke tensions

Aid ship may stoke tensions
The Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (?HH), together with several other international nongovernmental organizations, is planning to sail to Gaza with seven aid ships to draw attention to the embargo on the besieged area.

Upcoming aid ship convoy may stoke tensions between Turkey and Egypt

The diplomatic sources recalled that a similar move by the Viva Palestina convoy last December caused problems and said this time the problems could be even more severe.

The December convoy, which carried British, Arab and Turkish aid to Gaza, first went to Aqaba, situated far from Gaza. Egyptian authorities did not allow the convoy to cross Egypt and directed it to El Arish, the closest harbor to Gaza. Demonstrations against Cairo were held in Turkey at that time.

?HH spokesman Salih Bilici said their goal this time is to enter Gaza via the Gaza harbor and that while they are aware of possible problems, they don"t have an alternative plan. ?We don"t have a plan B, C or D. We have decided to reach to Gaza by sea and enter via its port,? he told.

He said they bought two ships for this purpose, one passenger vessel with a 1,083-person capacity, and a cargo vessel that can hold 3,500 tons. British NGOs will contribute two ships to the fleet, Greece one ship and Irish NGOs will send another. It is expected that five ships carrying aid to Gaza will set sail near the end of May.

Bilici said that in addition to medical aid, the ships would carry construction materials. ?We are taking construction materials as a symbolic gesture. Since the war, construction materials have not been allowed in; there are many government buildings, schools and hospitals in Gaza that were devastated. We want to convey the message that "they are destroying, we are rebuilding",? Bilici said.

Bilici claims that Israel does not have any right to prevent them from entering Gaza"s port but said that Israel might find an excuse:

?They could find some pretexts, like holding military exercises, for not letting us reach Gaza. But we will. We will enter Gaza by sea via the Gaza port. We are determined,? he said. According to Israeli sources, it is not possible to enter Gaza by sea, and additionally construction materials are not allowed in under any circumstances.

?We think those kinds of convoys are political. They are more directed at political propaganda and less directed at humanitarian aid,? Amit Zarouk, a spokesperson at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara, told.

He claimed that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza now, that electricity to the area is supplied by Israel, that exports are allowed from Gaza, that hundreds of trucks carrying food enter Gaza every day and that all sorts of medical aid is free to enter Gaza.

?But there are well-known ways to do this, and these are the ways used by the UN aid agencies, other international organizations and the Turkish Red Crescent. There are two gates to Gaza, Karni and Kerem Shalom. The sea route is not acceptable for us,? he said.

Zarouk underlined that the cement and iron will not be allowed to enter Gaza under any circumstances. ?Those kinds of materials, instead of making houses for people, are used for building bunkers and reinforcing the armed capacity of Hamas and also constructing tunnels for smuggling weapons,? he said. When he was asked what would happen if the ships tries to enter Gaza, Zarouk answered that he couldn"t say at the moment.

?This propaganda is not acceptable, and we will deal with it accordingly,? he said.

In the past, Israel had two tactics: Either the Israeli Navy would force ships to dock at the Port of Ashdod in Israel, unload the aid and after inspecting it send to Gaza or force ships to turn back to open sea. According to Palestinian Ambassador to Turkey Nabil Maarouf, Israel would never let such an aid fleet enter Gaza, and the fleet will be forced to alter its route to dock at the El-Arish port. If this is the case, the ambassador noted, such a situation could create diplomatic problems.

Egyptian Ambassador to Turkey Abderahman Salaheldin told Sunday"s Zaman that the rules are very clear on sending humanitarian aid to Gaza:

?First of all they need to notify us ahead of time about their plans and give us details of their humanitarian aid. Medical supplies will go to the Refah crossing, but the non-medical assistance has to be coordinated with Israel,? he said and added that so far they had not received any request from the ?HH or the other NGOs.

The Egyptian ambassador recalled that any initiative aiming to help the Palestinian cause should remember that Israel wants to make the division of Palestine at Gaza and the West Bank in order to prevent the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Ambassador Salaheldin added that they are constantly sending aid to Gaza and working for the reconciliation of Palestine, which would be in the best interests of the Palestinians.

?To supply humanitarian aid is only one part of efforts to help our Palestinian brothers. We should be working hand-in-hand for peace and an independent Palestine state. If the Turkish public is not well educated in the situation, we will lack the support of this very energetic public for this cause,? he said and added that everybody should understand the laws and international obligations of Egypt and no one should put Egypt in the same boat with Israel the occupier.

The ?HH "s Bilici said that they were aware of the fact that both Israel and Egypt might try to prevent them from entering but argued that since their motive is humanitarian and they have the support of 42 countries" NGOs, these two countries will be obliged to step back.

?Last time Egypt was criticized by the international community, especially by the Arab and Islamic media. We don"t think they will repeat this,? Bilici said. When he was asked if they had ever communicated with Israeli and Egyptian authorities about their planned trip, he said no.

Last time Egyptian authorities directed the convoy to the port of El Arish, where scuffles broke out between members of the convoy and the Egyptian police after part of the convoy was barred from entering Gaza. Violence erupted during solidarity protests held by Palestinians in Gaza awaiting the convoy"s arrival, resulting in the death of an Egyptian policeman. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed About Gheit described the aid convoy as ?farcical? and said the country would no longer allow such solidarity convoys and that from now on all aid to Gaza must be handled by the Red Crescent at El Arish.

Ambassador Maarouf warned that the same scenes could be repeated, that such a move might cause diplomatic problems and that the Palestinians might not be benefit from the aid.

?I have another proposal, and I am discussing it with the NGOs,? Ambassador Maaruf said and explained his suggestion as follows: ?I am suggesting we gather the Turkish, Palestinian and Egyptian Red Crescents, form a convoy, but not of ships, raise the three flags and coordinate it together and enter Gaza. This way the ultimate aim of helping Gaza will be achieved. The three Red Crescents can directly distribute food to the people. This will also serve to enhance relations between Egypt and Turkey, instead of creating problems in Ankara-Cairo relations.?

When Bilici was asked about this suggestion, he said their journey aims to enter Gaza via the Gaza seaport. ?We are not calculating anything but to enter Gaza. We are determined to do it, because by sea it is possible to carry more aid than over land. Secondly we want to show the world that it is possible to break the embargo for humanitarian reasons,? he said.

Ay?e Karabat

www.turkishmaritime.com.tr

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