Israel’s relations with Turkey, its closest Muslim ally, are in crisis as a result of the Israeli offensive.
As thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul and other cities to condemn Israel’s action, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Israel for dealing what he called “a fatal blow” to Turkey’s mediation efforts between Israel and Syria and called Israel’s action a “crime against humanity”.
He also expressed anger that, just days before the assault, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on a visit to Ankara, had promised that “there would not be a humanitarian tragedy in Gaza”.
Addressing his party’s parliamantary group, Mr Erdogan defended Hamas, saying “we cannot possibly side with the tyrants, Israel” and continued: “Allah will… punish those who transgress the rights of the innocents.”
Hatred against Israel was also expressed by many Turkish newspaper commentators, some urging the government to break off relations with Israel. Most members of the Israeli-Turkish caucus in the parliament resigned, declaring that they could no longer be associated with Israeli politicians.
The Turkish PM has also expressed support for the nationwide protests, mainly organised or led by Islamist groups, during which Israeli flags were burned. He said that they reflected the public reaction to “the human tragedy in Gaza to which the Turkish people could not remain a spectator”.
With municipal elections due in March, some analysts have suggested that the Turkish PM’s stance has been mainly designed to win popular support. Several Turkish newspaper columnists have criticised the Prime Minister for his stance. “Erdogan’s words are similar only to those of [Iran’s president Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad,” wrote Turhan Alkan in the daily Radikal. “This attitude gives the impression that the
[Palestinian] problem was between Israel and Turkey... There is no reason to appear more Arab than the Arabs”.
Israel also protested at Mr Erdogan’s words. The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned the Turkish Ambassador to protest at “unacceptable” remarks, while diplomats expressed shock at the fierce attacks.
Strict security measures have been implemented at synagogues and Jewish communal institutions and businesses across Turkey, with the Turkish Security Department reportedly issuing orders to police to raise the alert to the highest level to protect Jewish, Israeli and US interests.
A predominantly Muslim but constitutionally secular country, Turkey has maintained close relations with Israel. Despite the angry reaction to Gaza, it is unlikely the country will sever strategic relations with the Jewish state. When asked by reporters whether Turkey would consider sanctions against Israel, Mr Erdogan said “foreign policy should not be emotional”.
However, high level visits and some joint projects may be put on hold. President Abdullah Gul’s visit to Israel, due later this month, has been postponed.
Meanwhile, Israeli basketball team Bnei Sharon pulled out of a European Cup match in Ankara on Tuesday. The team left the court before the match began after spectators threw objects and shouted abuse.