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Activists mount new challenges to Israel as furor over raid continues

The hands of a detained activist pressed against the glass of an Israeli bus on Wednesday. Photo: AP Photo/Alberto Denkberg

A second pro-Palestinian organization announced on Wednesday that it will send a flotilla of aid ships to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and suggested that it might receive the official support of the Turkish government for the effort.

The European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza said in a statement posted on its website that the second flotilla, which it calls the “Fleet of Freedom 2,” will be larger and carry more aid and activists than the first flotilla, and will set sail in the next several weeks.

“The extensive calls are taking place to launch a new fleet to the Gaza Strip, involving many ships, will be carrying on board more aid and more peace activists than ‘Freedom 1,’ which was carrying ten thousand tons of aid and hundreds of peace activists from more than forty countries around the world,” said Arafat Madi, the organization’s president.

The statement added that Madi had not ruled out “semi-official participation” in the new flotilla, “especially from the Turkish side, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will continue to provide aid and assistance to the Gaza Strip at all costs.” Representatives of the Turkish government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The announcement came as world leaders and international organizations condemned the Israeli raid on the first flotilla, which left nine dead. The United Nations Human Rights Council called for an independent investigation of the incident, and British Prime Minister David Cameron called the raid “completely unacceptable” in his first public comments on the matter.

Need to Know reported Tuesday that the Free Gaza movement was already sending an additional boat, the Rachel Corrie, to break the Israeli blockade. Leaders of the organization said the boat could reach Gaza’s coastal waters later this week, and that they would attempt to get Hedy Epstein, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who was held back from the first flotilla, on board.

The Rachel Corrie has presented a delicate diplomatic challenge for the Israeli government as it faces worldwide condemnation for the raid. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan demanded that the Israeli Navy allow the Rachel Corrie, an Irish ship, to approach Gaza, and said there would be “most serious consequences” if the boat was stopped, according to The Irish Times.

Israel insisted that it would not lift its blockade of Gaza despite international criticism. The blockade was imposed in 2006 after Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization, took control of the region in local elections. Israel has attempted to choke off the supply of weapons and material support to Hamas, which has launched thousands of rocket attacks on Israeli citizens.

“It’s true that there is international pressure and criticism of this policy, but [the world] must understand that it is crucial to preserving Israel’s security and the right of the State of Israel’s to defend itself,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, according to Haaretz. “Opening a naval route to Gaza will present an enormous danger to the security of our citizens.”

The international attention focused on the raid has proved a boon to pro-Palestinian organizations, which have attempted several times in recent years to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza but failed. The most recent flotilla was the largest and most ambitious attempt yet, and received the unofficial blessing of the Turkish government, which has reasserted its authority in the region and been increasingly confrontational toward Israel.

In an interview with Need to Know on Tuesday, Free Gaza organizer Mary Hughes said the incident had thrust her organization into the spotlight after years of relative obscurity.

“We are so grateful. Free Gaza started out so small, nobody knew we existed. And now here we are. We can’t believe our success,” Hughes said in a telephone interview from Cyprus. “We’re sorry that they killed people. This is a tragedy for us, and of course for those people. It’s unforgivable. We know that the last thing those people wanted or expected was to end up losing their lives.”