Israel’s Challenge to Turkey

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

In the wake of the storming of the Mavi Marmara (Blue Marmara), the truth cannot be obscured by the propaganda pouring out of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, particularly out of the mouth of the repulsive Mark Regev. The ship was sailing in international waters when it was attacked. The blockade of Gaza has been described by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, as illegal. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has been calling for months for it to be lifted. Israel has no rights in Gaza or in the waters off Gaza, and no rights in international rights beyond those belonging to all shipping. What it described as a ‘police action’ was in fact not just an act of piracy but an act of war. The attack was ordered by the government of Israel. The Israeli assault force could see that the ship was draped with a large Turkish flag but proceeded with the attack anyway. There is a direct parallel with the air and sea attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, not far from where the Mavi Marmara was assaulted. The Liberty was flying an American flag as big as a bed sheet, but the Israelis still attacked it with missiles and torpedoes over many hours, failing to sink the boat as apparently intended but killing 34 sailors and seriously wounding many others.

The picture of what happened on board the Mavi Marmara has been clarified by the evidence of the passengers and by the forensic evidence revealed by the autopsies carried out on the nine dead men. The attack was launched while the Muslim passengers were praying. This was deliberate. The Israelis hoped to catch them off guard, but when the first group of commandos landed on the top deck they were overpowered by a small number of Turkish civilians.  Photos published in the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper show one commando lying on his back with his belly showing, a second wandering around with a bleeding nose and a third crying. The Israelis tried to destroy these images but they were reconstructed in Turkey through the use of advanced technology. The commandos were disarmed. Had their captors been intent on ‘lynching’ them, as the Israeli media claimed, they could have shot them, but instead they threw their guns into the sea.  

It seems that this humiliation of what is supposed to be a crack marine force triggered off the pathological rage evident in the way the Turkish civilians were killed. They ranged in age from 61 to 19. The forensics show that they were all shot many times, and at close range.  A photographer was shot between the eyes, blowing his brains out the back of his head. Furkan Doðan, a 19-year-old Turkish-American student who had been living in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, and had recently passed the university entrance exam, was shot once in the stomach and four times in the head. (The US government has allowed the murder of this American passport-holder to pass without demanding any explanation from the Israeli government, but then it did nothing following the murder of Rachel Corrie, and, further back, suppressed the truth about the attack on the Liberty). Other Turks were murdered by shots to the top of the head, fired from snipers sitting in the helicopters circling overhead. This bloodbath enabled the Israelis to take control of the ship. The passengers, kidnapped on the high seas, were taken to Israel and detained and threatened with preposterous charges (i.e., illegally entering the country) before being released.

The mood in Turkey is boiling. The government has demanded an apology, and has threatened to break relations unless it gets it. Israel has refused and, rubbing salt into the wound, intends to give the killer of six of the Turks a medal. Thousands of people have demonstrated in Istanbul and Ankara, the demonstrations swelling in size as the forensic evidence was released and the dead men were buried.  The US and European governments expressed their regret at the loss of life, but are unlikely to take any concrete action. Only Turkey is actually likely to do anything. Its relationship with Israel is now at the bottom of the sea, in a deep abyss that probably places it beyond recovery short of a radical change of direction by Israel. The relationship between the two countries has been steadily degenerating steadily ever since the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) was voted into office seven years ago. From the beginning it took a strong position on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoðan, has called Israel a terrorist state and after the attack on the Mavi Marmara he has used the phrase again. He strongly condemned the Israeli onslaught on Gaza beginning in December, 2008. In Davos for the World Economic Forum in January last year, he walked out of a panel discussion after the moderator (David Ignatius, of the Washington Post) tried cut him off while responding to a lengthy justification of the attack on Gaza by Israeli President Shimon Peres. ‘When it comes to killing you know very well how to kill’, he told Peres. Davos ‘is over for me’, he remarked before walking out of the studio.

In January this year the Turkish ambassador to Israel was summoned to the Knesset (not the Foreign Ministry as usual) for the express purpose of being deliberately humiliated before a television audience. The Israelis were incensed by a Turkish television series which basically portrayed them as a bunch of barbarians. The ambassador had no idea of what was about to happen. A television crew followed him into the room. He  was sat in a low chair while  Danny Ayalon, the Deputy Foreign Minister, sitting in front and  above him, told the cameras: ‘Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair – that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling’. The reaction in Turkey was predictably one of official and public outrage.  

In terms of hard national interest the attack by Israel on a ship flying the Turkish flag (and owned by the greater municipality of Istanbul) was absolute folly, unless Israel had already decided that the relationship with Turkey had degenerated to the point where it was no longer worth maintaining. Turkey and Egypt are the two most populous countries in the region, but Turkey is more developed and has resources Israel badly needs. Under GAP (the Greater Anatolia Project) Turkey has dammed 700 square kilometres of water in the southeast. The region has been developed as an energy hub and transit point for oil, water and fibre optics. Future plans did include the transhipment of these resources south to Israel, but for the moment it must be said that these plans actually don’t have a future. Turkey is a major purchaser of Israeli weaponry. This works for both sides. Israel needs the money and Turkey likes the quality of Israeli military equipment but sales have been affected by the deteriorating political relationship and this is likely to continue.

The message coming from the Turkish government is that it is not prepared to sit by while Israel lives in violation of international law. There is strong public support for the official position. The occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the blockade of Gaza resonate powerfully amongst the people. There was a furious public reaction to the attack launched on Gaza in 2008. Most shocking for the Turks, a people with a strong sense of family, was the killing of hundreds of children. Signs went up in shop windows declaring that ‘We are all Palestinians’ and taxi drivers pasted front page photos of dead children to the rear windows of their cars. In Mediterranean tourist towns shop owners declared that Israelis were not welcome and would not be served. The attack on Gaza completely undermined indirect back room negotiations between Syria and Israel in which Turkey and had played a central role. Erdoðan, a man with a strong sense of amour propre, had no idea of what was coming and felt that he had been played for a fool.

Turkey’s strong stand on the Palestine question has to be seen in the context of the confident and assertive new foreign policy being forged under the leadership of Erdoðan and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoðlu. In 2003 the US was shocked (and angered) by Turkey’s refusal to open a second front for the war on Iraq. More recently, Turkey has refused to be sucked into the international campaign against Iran orchestrated by the US and Israel and has warned that any misuse of Turkish air space would have severe repercussions. Since coming to power in the government has normalised its relations with Syria and Iran, both of them the main targets of a very hostile US foreign policy, pursued on behalf of Israel. Turkey does not regard these countries or Hizbullah and Hamas as the main threats to peace in the Middle East. It believes that Israel is the chief threat to regional order, a view which is shared across the region. Turkey’s foreign policy initiatives have also included approaches to Armenia (presently foundering on an assortment of Armenian and Turkish rocks) and dialogue with the Kurdish government in northern Iraq. Erdoðan himself took a leading role in getting the Alliance of Civilisations dialogue off the ground. Turkey is committed to the goal of EU accession despite all setbacks (and the open hostility of Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy) and remains, of course, an important member of NATO. To portray Turkey as having ‘defected’ from the so-called ‘west’ is nonsense.

Turkey’s role as a trusted regional power broker led only recently (May 30) to the signing of an agreement with Brazil and Iran under which Iranian uranium would be sent to Turkey for enrichment. The arrangement seemed to offer a way out of the developing crisis between the US-Israel and Iran. Instead, Hillary Clinton said the next day that her government would still be pressing for sanctions through the UN Security Council. The unspoken message to Turkey was that we run the Middle East, not you. 

The relationship between Turkey and Israel was never an ‘alliance’.  It was a strategic relationship largely forged by the military and intelligence establishments of both countries but since 2002 the role of the military has shrunk. The policies now being pursued by the government on the question of Palestine now more genuinely reflect the wishes of the people. There is absolutely no doubt of this. There is no reason why Turks would want their government to support Israel, and not just because they are Muslims.

Through its destructive policies of the past six decades, Israel has turned itself into a country whose policies no government and no people with any sense of moral responsibility or commitment to international law could support. It is not the world that has turned Israel into a pariah state. Israel has done it all by itself.  

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to

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