October 17, 2011

The MV Mavi Marmara in the Golden Horn

I was in Istanbul, Turkey earlier this month and happened on the MV Mavi Marmara at a dock in the Golden Horn (my pictures).

The ship was docked at an out-of-the way location not far from some Turkish government facilities. The current status of the vessel is unclear.

To me, the Mavi Marmara is a bit of recent Middle East history.

The Mavi Marmara, which translates from the Turkish as Blue Marmara (Sea) was built in Turkey in 1994. It was operated as a passenger ferry in the Istanbul area until 2010, when it was purchased for $800,000 by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, an Islamic Turkish charity organization active in more than 100 countries. IHH is derived from the first three words of its full name in Turkish: İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief.

IHH purchased the vessel specifically to lead an international effort to challenge the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Since no shipowners would allow their vessels to take part in such a dangerous operation, IHH purchased a vessel using public donations. This is interesting - the IHH has special consultative status with the United Nations, but the United Nations has upheld the legality of the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.

If IHH was looking for a confrontation, unfortunately, the Israelis obliged them. In May 2010, the Mavi Marmara participated in a convoy of ships manned by activists from 37 different countries. After the activists refused Israeli Navy demands that they divert to the Israeli port of Ashdod or be boarded, the Israelis began forcibly boarding the Mavi Marmara early in the morning of May 31.

In the violent clash that followed, nine activists on the vessel were killed and several dozen others injured. There are mixed reports as to whether or not the ship was carrying humanitarian aid.

The Mavi Marmara was released in July 2010; after being towed to a Turkish port and repaired, it returned to Istanbul in December.

According to what information I can find, including several Turkish sources, the vessel is still registered in the Comoros Islands.  That may be, but the Turkish flag has been reapplied to the side of the ship, and the vessel was flying the Turkish flag from the stern when I saw it in the Golden Horn. During the confrontation with the Israelis in 2010, the ship did not have the Turkish flag painted on the side, although there were huge Turkish cloth flags adorning the vessel. It also flew the Cormoros flag on the stern.

Most of the Turks I spoke with about this incident believe that the IHH activists were looking for a fight. They aslo expressed surprise that the Israelis took the bait and, in their view, overreacted. I tend to agree with that assessment, but then, it's always easy to second guess these things after the fact.