x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Turkey accuses Israel of barbarity

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, yesterday speaking at a meeting of Palestinian diplomats from around the world in Istanbul, said a deadly Israeli raid that killed nine Turkish activists on their way to the Gaza Strip last year was an outrage.

ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, yesterday accused Israel of barbarity and toughened conditions for a possible improvement of relations between the two countries, former partners whose ties have been in a crisis state for more than two years.

Mr Erdogan, speaking at a meeting of Palestinian diplomats from around the world in Istanbul, said a deadly Israeli raid that killed nine Turkish activists on their way to the Gaza Strip last year was an outrage.

"If Israel does not apologise officially for this illegal act that ran counter to international law and all human values, if it does not pay compensation to the families of the victims and if it does not lift the blockade of Gaza, a normalisation of relations between the two countries is unthinkable," Mr Erdogan said in his televised speech. "No religion and no system of thought justifies a bloodthirsty and barbaric massacre."

Since the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla, Turkey has been demanding an apology and compensation to the families of the victims. Diplomats from both countries have been trying to find a compromise in confidential talks. But Mr Erdogan's speech yesterday was the first time a leading Turkish politician added the call for an end of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip as a condition for normalisation.

Mr Erdogan's speech came just days after he first appeared to raise the stakes in Turkey's ongoing crisis with Israel, which started with Israel's military intervention in the Gaza Strip in late 2006. Last Tuesday, Mr Erdogan announced plans for a visit to Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel, possibly during a visit to Egypt in the coming weeks.

According to news reports, Turkey wants Israel to apologise for the raid on the Gaza flotilla before a United Nations report is released on the incident on July 27, but Israeli officials have ruled out an official apology.

On Thursday, the Israeli strategic affairs minister, Moshe Yaalon, insisted that Israel would not take responsibility for the deaths. "We are ready to regret the loss of lives. We are ready to create a kind of humanitarian voluntary fund for compensation," Mr Yaalon said.

He said there would be no official apology nor direct compensation.

In his speech yesterday, Mr Erdogan accused Israel of violating Palestinian rights through the blockade of Gaza and through its settlement policy in east Jerusalem. "Israel has to accept east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine," he said. "The plight of the Palestinians is our plight. Turkey will always be at the side of the Palestinians."

The prime minister also renewed Turkey's support for Palestinian statehood. In the Istanbul conference, organised by Mr Erdogan's government, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met about 90 Palestinian envoys from missions around the world to discuss ways to gain statehood recognition from as many countries as possible before the UN General Assembly session in September.

"We have won recognition by 118 countries," Mr Abbas said during the meeting in Istanbul. "That figure will rise further."

He said the Palestinians' bid for UN membership was forced upon them by Israel's refusal to halt settlement building and end its occupation. The drive for recognition did not exclude further talks with Israel, he stressed.

"Our first, second and third choice is to return to negotiations," Mr Abbas said. "Like the rest of the peoples of the world ... we wish to be members of the General Assembly, members of the UN, no more, no less," he said, recalling that the Palestinians had been living under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Six Day War.

The Palestinians are faced with a probable veto against a comprehensive recognition by the United States, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Washington wants the Palestinians to resume stalled negotiations with Israel instead.

Mr Abbas called for unity among Palestinians, divided by a bitter row between Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas group in Gaza.

Mr Erdogan also stressed the need for Palestinian unity. "Palestinians have to come together by their own will," he said, adding that the ongoing division was helping opponents of the Palestinian cause.

Turkey has tried to mediate between Fatah and Hamas in the past, without much success. Mr Erdogan hinted at a renewed Turkish initiative to bring the two organisations closer together. "Let us concentrate all of our energy to solve this problem as soon as possible," he said.