- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2012

ISTANBUL — The leader of the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip received a hero’s welcome here Monday as he visited the ship where nine Turks were killed during an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2010.

“On behalf of the martyrs of our Palestinian people and on behalf of the families of the martyrs, I salute the martyrs and the families of the liberty ship, the [Mavi] Marmara,” Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said in front of the Turkish ship.

“And we would like to tell you that your blood is our blood, and your martyrs are our martyrs.”

Addressing Israel, Mr. Haniyeh said: “You stopped the Marmara from reaching Gaza, but Gaza reached the world.”

The Mavi Marmara was the largest vessel in a six-ship flotilla that tried to run Israel’s Gaza blockade. Israeli forces boarded the ship in international waters and were attacked by passengers; nine Turkish nationals died in the melee.

The incident ruptured the once-close relations between Israel and Turkey. Israel has rejected Turkey’s demand for an apology for the deaths, arguing that its commandos acted in self-defense.

On Monday, Mr. Haniyeh’s speech was interrupted several times by chants of anti-Israel slogans. At one point, the Hamas leader stopped his remarks to join in.

His visit to the Mavi Marmara came a day after he met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose public embrace of the group has enraged Israel and raised concerns in the West.

Mr. Haniyeh is on his first tour of the region since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007. He also will visit Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.