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Rally For Aid Ship Bodes Ill For Turkey-Israel Ties

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Rally For Aid Ship Bodes Ill For Turkey-Israel Ties

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Rally For Aid Ship Bodes Ill For Turkey-Israel Ties

Rally For Aid Ship Bodes Ill For Turkey-Israel Ties

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/132358552/132358594" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The aid vessel Mavi Marmara on Sunday returned to port in Istanbul, where it was greeted by thousands of people commemorating the nine men who were killed on the ship in May when it was boarded by Israeli commandos off the coast of Gaza. Israel says its forces fired in self-defense. Clint Willey for NPR hide caption

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Clint Willey for NPR

Thousands of people crowded into a port area on Istanbul's European side Sunday to welcome the aid ship Mavi Marmara, scene of a deadly clash off the Gaza coast in May. Volunteers from the Islamic charity IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) directed the crowd past huge posters of the eight Turks and one Turkish-American who died in the violence.

Chants of "Israel be damned!" rang out from the crowd as the ship was eased into dock. The anti-Israel sentiment threatened to undo tentative diplomatic efforts to restore Turkish-Israeli ties, which plummeted following the May 31 fatalities.

Israel says its naval commandos fired in self-defense when armed activists attacked them during a boarding raid on the high seas. That version of events has never found much support in Turkey, and many in the crowd Sunday shared the view of Touba Andi, who traveled from Adana for the occasion.

Turks wave flags to greet the aid ship Mavi Marmara on Sunday in Istanbul. Clint Willey for NPR hide caption

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Clint Willey for NPR

Turks wave flags to greet the aid ship Mavi Marmara on Sunday in Istanbul.

Clint Willey for NPR

"The Mavi Marmara was a humanitarian aid ship, and it met with injustice and hostility," said Andi, "and I thought it was very important to come here and make a stand against that injustice."

Slain Activists Hailed As Martyrs

The crowd roared as the names of the nine dead men were read out, and activists — including an Israeli-born Swede — called on the international community to remember the people of Gaza. Israel has eased some overland restrictions on Gaza recently, but a visit by NPR earlier this month found that the improvements had barely dented the massive poverty gripping the tiny, overcrowded strip.

Turkey's political leaders didn't add to the anti-Israel sentiment. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said over the weekend that Turkey still intends to have peaceful relations with Israel.

But 69-year-old Mustafa Ogut voiced the more popular view here when he said he would never forgive his government if it dropped its demand for an apology from Israel.

"No, I don't think ties should be normalized," he said. "Israel definitely needs to apologize, to Turkey and to the Muslim world, and that's why we are united. We are one fist together."

Youths at the rally marking the return of the Mavi Marmara wear headbands accusing Israel of murder in the deaths of nine activists aboard the ship in May. Clint Willey for NPR hide caption

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Clint Willey for NPR

Relations Hardening

In Israel, hard-line Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was only too pleased to respond in kind. In a speech criticized at home and abroad, Lieberman called the Turkish foreign minister and prime minister "liars" and said Turkey should be the one to apologize.

Such comments suggest it may be a chilly winter of enmity for two countries that long enjoyed relatively good relations. And come spring, the owners of the Mavi Marmara say the ship will make another voyage to Gaza to mark the one-year anniversary of the May 31 fatalities.