I am the only Turkish politician who has visited Israel since Israel unleashed the Gaza war in 2008, and the Davos incident in 2009 between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan highlighted the differences between our countries.
I have many friends in Israel, and I did not hesitate to visit Israel when an invitation was extended to me by an Israeli think tank. Despite the many challenges, I maintained my optimism that Turkey and Israel would be able to mend their differences despite their disagreements over the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
However, Monday was a turning point for me and my nation’s 72 million citizens.
Monday, Turkey was shocked to watch Israeli commandos raiding a Turkish flotilla loaded with medical supplies, toys, and food bound for Gaza, killing at least nine peace activists in the process.
The raid in itself was illegal as it occurred in international waters and, according to former British Ambassador Craig Murray, amounts to “illegal warfare.”
The ships’ 600 activists included Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, German lawmakers, journalists, businessmen, and an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor – hardly targets that could pose a threat to Israel’s well-trained commandos.
Accounts from released activists clearly indicate that Israeli commandos who stormed the largest ship in the flotilla shot to kill and used electric stun guns. These accounts differ sharply from those coming from Israeli politicians and the military. It is therefore imperative that a prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent investigation conforming to international standards into the deaths of at least nine civilians at the hands of Israeli commandos is launched.
The United Nations, Turks, and international public opinion demand to know what happened, why, and who is responsible.
The flotilla raid has two dimensions. First, it has irrevocably damaged Turkish-Israeli relations at the bilateral level. Turkey demands – as does the UN – an independent investigation into the murder of the nine activists and wants an apology and compensation for those killed by Israeli commandos.
Ankara also wants those responsible for this crime to be punished. Anything short of these measures will not cut it. What the current Israel government does not seem to get is that this premeditated murder has brought about the passing of a critical threshold in Turkish perceptions vis-à-vis Israel regardless of political persuasion.
As of Monday, Turks regard the current Israeli government as unfriendly. There is no doubt that the rift has the potential to escalate if Israel will not respond quickly and responsibly.
Second, there is a significant international dimension to the flotilla fiasco. The murder of peace activists by Israel once again demonstrated the blatant disregard for international norms and law by this Israeli government.
Most important, the US response to Israel’s disproportionate use of violence against innocent civilians constitutes a test case for US credibility in the Middle East.
The US also has a moral responsibility to condemn Israel’s violence for what it is. Turkey is closely monitoring the US response. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu eloquently noted, this is not a choice between Turkey and Israel. It is a choice between right and wrong, between legal and illegal.
In many respects, the Middle East is approaching an important crossroad.
The United States will itself determine what sort of Middle East it will be dealing with in the future by its response to Israel’s actions. This could not be more urgent given the tension surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, the precarious situation in Iraq, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the flotilla raid has once again highlighted that the blockade on Gaza is not sustainable. Israel can no longer justify its inhumane blockade against Gaza Palestinians.
Gaza constitutes an open-air prison. According to Amnesty International, 1.4 million Palestinians are subject to collective punishment that aims to suffocate the Gaza Strip.
Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, and food price increases caused by shortages have left 4 in 5 Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. That is why the freedom flotilla wanted to deliver the aid it was carrying. It also wanted to make a point of the need to allow Gazans to trade and interact with the rest of the world.
We Turks welcomed the Jews escaping from the Inquisition in Spain in 1492. Our diplomats risked their lives to save European Jews from the Nazis. The Ottoman Empire and Turkey have traditionally been hospitable to Jews for centuries. That said, we can no longer tolerate the brutal policies of the current Israeli government, especially if they cost the lives of our citizens. Neither Turks’ nor the international community’s consciences can continue to carry the burden of the Netanyahu government’s irresponsible policies.
As a Washington Post editorial concluded, "Benjamin Netanyahu also needs to broaden his government to include pro-peace parties; one of his main problems is cabinet hawks who have made Israeli diplomacy an oxymoron."
Both Israel and Turkey deserve better.