ISTANBUL // Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Istanbul yesterday to protest against the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid ships, which carried mostly Turkish pro-Palestinian activists. The government in Ankara recalled its ambassador from Israel and warned of "irreversible consequences" for relations between the traditional allies.
Leading a chorus of voices protesting against the Israeli action, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said the Israeli attack was "state terrorism that completely contradicts international law". He said that "international law is being trampled upon" and that "it is clear that Israel does not want peace in the region". Besides recalling its ambassador for consultations, Turkey cancelled several military exercises with Israel, the deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, said in a news conference carried live by television stations. Turkey, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, was also demanding an urgent meeting of the council.
"This attack will be a dark stain on the history of mankind," he said. Mr Arinc heads the government in the absence of Mr Erdogan, who is on a visit in South America. Mr Erdogan cut short his visit and is expected back in Turkey today. As news of the attack started to come in the early hours yesterday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, pelted the building with stones and tried to storm it. Riot police fought back with water canons and tear gas.
The protesters dispersed, but later regrouped. At about midday, the crowd had swollen to several tens of thousands of men and women. They marched from the consulate towards the central Taksim Square, shouting "Down with Israel" and "An eye for an eye, revenge, revenge". They carried signs that read "Long live the global intifada". In Ankara, the capital, protesters gathered in front of the residence of Gaby Levy, Israel's ambassador to Turkey. Protesters in the southern city of Adana marched on the US consulate there. Mr Levy was summoned to the Turkish foreign ministry in the morning, where Turkish diplomats conveyed their government's protest against the Israeli action.
"Israel has once again clearly demonstrated that it does not value human lives and peaceful initiatives through targeting innocent civilians," the ministry said in a statement. "We strongly condemn these inhuman acts of Israel. This grave incident which took place in high seas in gross violation of international law might cause irreversible consequences in our relations." Turkey's government went into crisis mode. Mr Arinc called an urgent meeting of key ministers and military officers to discuss the situation. Ilker Basbug, Turkey's chief of general staff, cut short a visit to Egypt, Mr Arinc said.
Turkey, a secular republic with a predominantly Muslim population, has been a long-time ally of Israel and was among the first countries to recognise the state in 1949. The two countries increased their co-operation with a military pact in 1996. Turkey orchestrated indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria two years ago. But lately, relations have been strained, especially since Israel's military assault on the Gaza Strip in late 2008.
Critics say the government of Mr Erdogan, which has roots in political Islam, has distanced the country from Israel and increased co-operation with countries like Iran and Syria in an effort to steer Turkey towards a stronger alliance with the Muslim world. The government rejects the accusation, but says Turkey cannot remain silent given what it regards as the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. "Israel has attacked innocent people in international waters. That is unacceptable," Omer Celik, a senior official of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said on Turkish television.
Meanwhile, Turkish customs officials in the southern port city of Antalya, where the aid ships docked before setting off, said Israeli concerns that the vessels may have carried weapons for Palestinian militants were unfounded. Observers agreed that tensions triggered by the Israeli attack on the ships were much more serious than all past incidents. Murat Mercan, the chairman of the foreign relations committee in Turkey's parliament, accused Israel of committing an act of "piracy" that had to be condemned.
"This is the biggest crisis yet," Ilter Turkmen, a former Turkish foreign minister, told the NTV news channel. Serkan Taflioglu, a Middle East specialist in Ankara, told the same channel that "relations will not be the same anymore". "Israel is drunk with power," Erhan Kelesoglu, a political scientist from Istanbul University, said in a television programme. Even though Israel had broken international law in the past, it always managed to get away with it, he said, and only a quick apology could help to calm the situation, but that was probably not forthcoming.
But Mr Turkmen said Turkey should be careful not to let protests escalate and turn into violent action against Israeli diplomats or the country's small Jewish community. A rise in anti-Semitism could lead to the protests "turning from right into wrong", he said. "It should not get out of hand." firstname.lastname@example.org