- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2012

ISTANBUL | The leader of Hamas 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 naval blockade of Gaza in May 2010. 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, 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 the crowd.

His visit to the Mavi Marmara came a day after he met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose public embrace of the Islamist 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, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

His visit comes as Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian faction controlling the West Bank, seek to implement a long-stalled unity agreement. Hamas has stated its intention to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which has represented Palestinians in peace talks with Israel for two decades.

Mr. Haniyeh was joined in Istanbul by Gaza’s ministers of finance, education and health.

In an interview, Health Minister Basam Naim expressed optimism about Palestinian reconciliation despite continued wrangling over who would be prime minister of a unity government.

“I think if there are good intentions, names will not be the biggest problem, as long as there are acceptable programs from both sides,” Mr. Naim said.

He also said it is suitable for Hamas to join the PLO, though he declined to specify how Hamas, which does not recognize Israel, could join a body that does.

“At this stage, we are not discussing the program, the content,” he said. “We are discussing the framework, the shape of PLO, how should it be representative for all Palestinians inside and outside Palestine after the big changes inside Palestine after more than 45 years since the establishment of the PLO.”

Mr. Naim said that Hamas is sticking to its rejection of Israel - for now.

“I don’t think that Hamas is going to recognize Israel as a state, especially with no vision that Israel is really willing to recognize the rights of the Palestinians,” he said. “When they recognize [the rights of] the Palestinians, we are willing to discuss everything.”

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