x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Murder charges over Mavi Marmara raid will test strained Turkey-Israel relations

Istanbul's High Criminal Court judges unanimously accepted an indictment against Israel's former chief of general staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and three other ex-commanders for their involvement in the attack on a flotilla bound for Gaza.

This image from an Israeli Defence Force video shows what Israel said was one of several commandos rappelling from a helicopter on to the Mavi Marmara in the Mediterranean Sea before the killings began. AP Photo
This image from an Israeli Defence Force video shows what Israel said was one of several commandos rappelling from a helicopter on to the Mavi Marmara in the Mediterranean Sea before the killings began. AP Photo

ISTANBUL // Two years after relations between former allies Turkey and Israel were plunged into crisis with the death of nine Turkish activists during an Israeli raid on a ship bound for Gaza, ties are set to be strained further with a decision by a Turkish court to hear murder charges against four former high-ranking Israeli military officers who oversaw the attack.

Tomorrow, tens of thousands of people are expected to gather in central Istanbul to commemorate the Israeli raid on May 31, 2010, at a rally organised by the Turkish charity that sent the ship, the Mavi Marmara, on the trip to Gaza.

The rally's aim was "to protest [against] Israel and show that the martyrs of Mavi Marmara have not been forgotten", the charity, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), said in a statement.

"Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the march and chant 'For Jerusalem's liberation', 'Final destination is Freedom' slogans" it added.

Earlier this week, Istanbul's High Criminal Court judges unanimously accepted an indictment against Israel's former chief of general staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and three other ex-commanders for their involvement in the attack on the Mavi Marmara. In his 144-page indictment, Mehmet Akif Ekinci, a prosecutor at the court, called for life sentences for the accused, Turkey's semi-official news agency Anadolu reported.

A date for the trial is to be set later, the court said.

The indictment said the officers who ordered the attack by Israeli commandos on the ship did so with the knowledge that people could be killed or hurt.

"Using deadly force with heavy weapons and long-range rifles because of attacks by people armed with sticks, spoons and forks cannot be described as legitimate defence," Anadolu quoted the indictment as saying.

The indictment also said the Israeli attack on the ship, carried out in international waters off the Israeli coast, should be treated like a crime committed on Turkish territory because it involved a Turkish vessel.

The four Israeli officers were not expected to attend a trial in Turkey. But convictions could trigger international arrest warrants against them, adding to existing tensions between Turkey and Israel, according to Veysel Ayhan, an analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara.

"Turkey will not take a step back in this and will do nothing to prevent a trial from going ahead," Mr Ayhan said.

But Israel's government said it hoped the international community would put pressure on Turkey to cancel the trial against Gen Ashkenazi and the other officials.

"I imagine that diplomatic pressure will be put on Turkey to withdraw this action," Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister, told state-run Channel One TV this week.

Turkey has demanded an apology by Israel, compensation for the victims' families as well as an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but Israel said the raid was an act of self defence against an act of aggression by the IHH, which Israel says is a militant Islamist organisation. In response to the Israeli refusal to apologise, Ankara threw out the Israeli ambassador last year and downgraded relations considerably.

A United Nations report into the raid released last September accused Israel of acting with "excessive force" in the operation. But it endorsed the legality of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, which Israel said was necessary to prevent the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave, from obtaining weapons.

Turkey has said relations can be normalised only after Israel agrees to its demands. Instead of asking Turkey to heal its ties with Israel, "people should tell Israel to repair its relations with us", said Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, last week after a meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, on the sidelines of the Nato summit in Chicago.

A Turkish diplomat, contacted by The National in the run-up to the anniversary of the Mavi Marmara raid and speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been no recent contact between the two countries aimed at solving the problem.

Last week, a lawyer in Istanbul representing relatives of the Mavi Marmara victims, said he had rejected an Israeli proposal to pay a total of US$6m (Dh22m) in compensation and to issue a statement expressing "regret" for the loss of life.

Ramazan Ariturk, the lawyer, dismissed the proposal after consulting the victims' families on the grounds that the Israeli offer was "morally wrong and not right", Mr Ariturk's office said.

Mr Ayhan said he expected Israel to eventually accept Turkey's conditions for a normalisation of ties because political changes in the Middle East resulting from the Arab Spring had increased Israeli isolation in the region.

"Israel will have to take a step," Mr Ayhan said. "It is the most rational solution."

He said the new political landscape in the region had not been to Israel's benefit, citing recent tensions with Egypt.

Without the Arab Spring, Israel may have not been under pressure to heal the rift with Turkey, Mr Ayhan said. "But conditions have changed, and Turkey has become stronger," he said.

"It is Israel that has to take a step, not Turkey."

tseibert@thenational.ae