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Monday, 31 May 2010

A latent fury at Israel shows its ugly head in Turkey

Israeli flags were burned in Istanbul, tens of thousands of Israeli tourists cancelled Turkish holiday reservations and a lawyer attempted to punch an Israeli cyclist off his bike today, as relations between the erstwhile allies plunged to depths not seen in decades.

It was sparked by Israel's interception of a flotilla of ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara more than twelve hours ago, but there is very little we know for certain beyond that. We know the Israel Defence Forces stormed the ships with commandos in the dead of the night, but we don't know precisely what happened on board, and who provoked whom. We know several people have died, largely Turkish citizens, but don't know how many. We also know that the Israeli government has been vocal in justifying its actions: the flotilla was warned, it was invited to dock at an Israeli port, weapons were concealed on board the ships, are among their claims.

The anger in Turkey is palpable. The interception came literally hours after seven Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack by PKK separatists on a navy base in İskenderun. But this morning's flotilla incident has done more than compound anger at that attack. A latent fury at Israel has shown its ugly head in Turkey.

It had been brewing for months, probably since Israel's Gaza offensive in January 2009. It was in response to this that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stormed off stage at a debate with the Israeli president at the World Economic Forum, almost causing a diplomatic incident but generating much acclaim back home.

A year later, I expressed concern about how an actual diplomatic incident - involving a Turkish TV drama and the Israeli deputy foreign minister - indicated two worrying trends: first, a mutual lack of respect at the highest level of Turkish-Israeli relations, and second, the growing popular resentment of Israel in Turkish public opinion. "The episode has injected further tension into the already icy relationship," I wrote at the time.

The first trend has certainly deteriorated. Mr Erdoğan described this morning's operation as "an act of state terrorism". His deputy, Bülent Arınç, used a press conference to demand the immediate return of those members of crew being treated in Israeli hospitals - almost as if they were hostages. The Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv has been recalled to Ankara for consultations for the second time this year. And Ahmet Davutoğlu, foreign minister, is in New York right now, preparing to table the matter at the UN Security Council. How far old friends can fall.

Things are also far worse in terms of the Turkish public's attitude to Israel. Most will now have seen pictures of the thousands who filled Istanbul's streets this afteroon. Flags were burnt; sections of the crowd shouted for retribution. Too often for comfort, the words "Israeli" and "Jew" were used interchangeably.

Turkish police today provided increased protection to the Israeli team at a cycle tour in Tekirdağ, in the country's northwest. The added measures seemed justified: a local lawyer sporting a Palestinian flag attempted to punch a passing Israeli cyclist off his bike. And the anger exists in reverse too: in a matter of hours today, tens of thousands of would-be Israeli tourists cancelled holiday reservations to towns in southwest Turkey.

Things are bad, far worse today than they were in January.

I don't think I need to get into culpability at this stage. The grainy mobile phone footage and limited Israeli army videos we have all seen so far tell their own story. Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, makes the important point that the commandos themselves are not to blame, at least not as much as those who decided to launch the botched operation.

How can Turkish-Israeli relations be rebuilt from this?

(Image from guardian.co.uk)

Israel storms aid ship

A few points on the storming by Israeli forces of a flotilla of ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara.

1 - In the last few minutes, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has told a press conference that Turkey has recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he says, has called an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council. There are no plans as yet to send military forces to recover the Turkish ships, although Mr Arınç did call for the immediate repatriation of those people taken to Israel for medical treatment.

2 - The media was expecting this conflict. Al Jazeera has journalists on board the ship who filed after Israeli troops boarded. Pictures from the Doğan News Agency are being shown on news channels worldwide. The Israeli military was prepared too: it has released footage of a radio warning issued by the navy prior to their interception. This is attack was not surprise.

3 - The Chief Rabbinate of Turkey has said it shared "the public reaction this operation has created in our country and express our deep sorrow". Mr Arınç did not directly respond to reports that Israel has called for Turkish Jews to emigrate immediately to Israel. He simply said Turkish Jews are citizens of Turkey, and that was confident the protests outside the Israeli embassy and consulate in Ankara and Istanbul would not target the Jewish community.

4 - Bear in mind there were ships belonging to other countries in the fleet. One such country is Greece, where the Israeli ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry.

5 - There is no word as yet from either Britain or the United States, but it is still very early in the morning in Washington.