April 12, 2024 | Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Turkish Organizations Ready Flotilla to Ignite Tensions With Israel

April 12, 2024 | Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Turkish Organizations Ready Flotilla to Ignite Tensions With Israel

The “Freedom Flotilla Coalition” (FFC), consisting of several pro-Palestinian activist groups, including two Turkish charities — one designated by Israel as a terrorist organization — plans to send several ships to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in mid-April. The initiative could provoke a military altercation with the Israeli or U.S. navies and undermine Washington’s humanitarian efforts.

The FFC comprises 12 member organizations, with the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and the Mavi Marmara Freedom and Solidarity Association overseeing the composition of the flotilla. Israel designated IHH as a terrorist entity in 2008, mainly owing to its membership in the Union of Good — a Muslim Brotherhood coalition of charities that the U.S. Treasury sanctioned in 2008 that is known to raise funds for Hamas.

The FFC describes itself as a “grassroots people-to-people solidarity movement” working to end what it calls “the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza.” In early 2024, the coalition announced its plan to dispatch a flotilla that would bypass established aid channels that Israel supervises.

By mid-April, the FFC plans to send an unspecified number of ships carrying 5,500 tons of humanitarian aid along with “international human rights observers” directly to Gaza. The organization rejects “Israel’s control over the humanitarian aid that can enter Gaza and … any Israeli inspection of our cargo.”

IHH organized a similar flotilla a decade ago that caused a violent altercation. In 2010, an armed skirmish broke out on the vessel Mavi Marmara when Israeli forces boarded the ship to search for weapons and opened fire when Turkish activists onboard attacked them with clubs, knives, and a gun. Ten Turks died in the exchange. While the incident sparked international outrage, the 2011 Palmer Report issued by the United Nations found Israel’s naval blockade was a legitimate form of self-defense. In 2016, Turkey agreed to end legal action against the Israeli officers involved in the incident.

It is unclear if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is backing the new flotilla initiative, but it is difficult to imagine such a provocative undertaking without his direct approval. Since October 7, Erdogan has offered his and the Turkish state’s unequivocal support for Hamas. The flotilla’s rejection of established channels creates the risk that it may be carrying weapons, explosives, and other dual-use goods for Hamas. Relatedly, in September 2023, Israeli customs officials intercepted 16 tons of dual-use explosive materials en route from Turkey to Gaza. The flotilla’s refusal to allow inspections underscores that its organizers want to provoke a military altercation with Israeli authorities, which could deem it necessary to stop and board the vessels. The move could also threaten the planned U.S. aid pier in Gaza and disrupt the flow of approved maritime cargo intended for the coastal strip.

The Biden administration must demand that Turkish authorities refrain from launching the flotilla, which would threaten the maritime corridor’s established inspection protocols designed to prevent the delivery of dual-use goods to Hamas. U.S. and Israeli forces established and maintain these measures. Currently, President Joe Biden and Erdogan are set to meet at the White House on May 9. The administration must impress upon Erdogan that such a meeting can only take place if the Turkish government prioritizes the delivery of aid via established channels and refrains from provocations that could result in armed conflict. Congress and the White House should demand Turkey — as a NATO ally — put a stop to any Turkish organizations attempting to use the guise of supporting aid to Gaza as a stepping stone to a potential armed maritime standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Tyler Stapleton is director of congressional relations at FDD Action. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Center on Political and Military Power (CMPP). Follow them on X @SinanCiddi and@Ty_D_Stapleton. Follow FDD on X @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. FDD Action is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(4) organization related to FDD, established to advocate for effective policies to promote U.S. national security and defend free nations.

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