The MV Mavi Marmara Incident: A Tragic Day in International Waters

In June 2016, Turkey and Israel agreed to normalize diplomatic relations. Israel agreed to pay compensation of 20 million dollars to the families of nine victims who died on the MV Mavi Marmara ship during the Gaza Freedom Flotilla mission on May 31, 2010. In return, Turkey was allowed to send aid and infrastructure projects to the Gaza Strip, Palestine. Additionally, Turkey agreed to enact laws protecting Israeli forces from legal claims.

Before the tragedy of the attack on the MV Mavi Marmara ship, the two countries had a very close relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel’s sovereignty.

The Gaza Freedom Flotilla was a humanitarian aid mission initiated through the collaboration of the Free Gaza Movement based in Cyprus and the Turkish-based IHH, along with other organizations such as the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza (ECESG), the Greek Ship to Gaza Campaign, and the Swedish Ship.

The MV Mavi Marmara was the largest vessel departing from Turkey, accompanied by two other ships, Gazze I and Defne. Additionally, there were two ships from Greece, Eleftheri Mesogios and the Sfendoni, along with Challenger I and Challenger II from the United States and the Rachel Corrie from Ireland.

A total of 700 people from 36 countries, including 11 Americans, several European parliament members, and Swedish writer Henning Mankell, participated in the fleet carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid.

On Friday, May 28, 2010, all ships gathered in the open waters of the Mediterranean, specifically off the southern coast of Cyprus. The journey towards Gaza only commenced on Sunday, May 30, 2010, around 16:30 local time.

Shortly before the journey began, Challenger I experienced hydraulic system damage, rendering the ship’s hydraulic channel ineffective. Meanwhile, Challenger II had to transfer its passengers to MV Mavi Marmara when the journey was about 70 miles off the coast of Cyprus due to a malfunction in the ship’s bilge pump.

At 21:00, three Israeli Defense Force (IDF) ships started moving from Haifa Port to intercept the ships from the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. By 22:30, before turning towards Gaza Port, precisely when they were 75 miles off the coast of Gaza in international waters, the IDF began warning the MV Mavi Marmara to stop its journey and not approach Gaza.

The ship’s captain immediately responded, stating that they were carrying nothing but humanitarian aid for Gaza.

Shortly after, Turksat and telephone satellites were blocked by Israel. This situation led approximately 600 people on MV Mavi Marmara to put on life jackets to prepare for the worst possible outcome.

Ignoring the IDF warnings, all the ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla continued their journey.

The next day, Monday, May 31, 2010, around 4:30, four warships, three helicopters, two submarines, and 30 Israeli Navy Zodiac boats surrounded the entire Gaza Freedom Flotilla. After capturing five ships without significant resistance, elite Shayetet 13 forces landed on the deck of the MV Mavi Marmara by descending a rope from a helicopter. They immediately headed to the ship’s deck and started firing at the humanitarian activists.

One of the soldiers claimed that the use of firearms was in self-defense to stop the resistance of activists who used knives, clubs, iron bars, and firearms taken from some Shayetet 13 members.

The president of IHH, Bulent Yildirim, provided a different account. According to him, the activists only used iron bars. Some Israeli weapons captured by the activists were not used for attack, according to him, but were thrown into the sea. He also denied Israel’s accusations, labeling his organization a terrorist group.

All humanitarian aid ships were then taken to Ashdod Port. All cargoes were inspected and transported by trucks to Kerem Shalom, the border between Israel and Gaza. Meanwhile, all ship passengers were detained.

Nine IHH members were killed, including eight Turks and one American. Around 31 others were injured, including seven Israeli soldiers.

The aid was planned to be delivered to Gaza via land routes by Israel. However, Hamas, which had been in power in Gaza since 2006, refused to accept the aid until the activists were released.

After international pressure, Israel finally released the activists on Thursday, June 3, 2010. Those severely injured were repatriated to their respective countries a few days later. Then, on June 15, 2010, it was announced that the UN would distribute aid to Gaza.

Before this incident, the Gaza Freedom Movement had been allowed to enter Gaza five times by Israel. However, after Operation Cast Lead, or the Gaza War, from December 27, 2008, to January 18, 2009, each ship from the Gaza Freedom Movement was blockaded. Additionally, Israel has enforced a maritime blockade against Gaza since 2006, after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip.

The tragedy on the MV Mavi Marmara immediately drew condemnation from majority-Muslim countries and the international community. The then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon demanded that Israel lift the Gaza blockade. The UN Security Council also reacted, planning to send an independent team to investigate the events on the MV Mavi Marmara, which they deemed a violation of international law.

However, in the end, a UN panel in 2011 agreed that the blockade was legal, but the loss of life and injuries due to the actions of the Israeli soldiers were excessive and unacceptable.

US President Barack Obama expressed regret over the incident and attempted to mediate a resolution to minimize worsening relations between Turkey and Israel. However, US Vice President Joe Biden had a different response, stating that the events on the MV Mavi Marmara were Israel’s absolute right to defend its security interests.

In several European cities, such as Paris, Stockholm, and Rome, demonstrations occurred. In Athens, the police had to use tear gas to quell protesters who were throwing stones and bottles at the Israeli Embassy in Greece.

Then-Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Israel’s actions a violation of international law and humanity. Furthermore, Turkey canceled joint military exercises with Israel and immediately recalled its ambassador.

In November 2012, in an Istanbul court, in absentia, Turkey convicted four Israeli commanders of the attack on the MV Mavi Marmara.

However, in March 2013, three years before the reconciliation agreement, through a phone conversation mediated by Barack Obama, the Prime Minister of Turkey and Israel agreed to restore diplomatic relations. Moreover, on behalf of the Turkish people, Erdogan accepted Israel’s apology.