November 6, 2012 9:54 am

Turkey tries Israeli former commanders

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Prosecutors in Turkey have asked for prison sentences of thousands of years for four former senior Israeli commanders, as the rift between the two former allies deepens.

The prosecution in absentia of the former commanders revolves around the Israeli Defence Force’s 2010 storming of the Mavi Marmara, a ship that formed part of a flotilla seeking to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed during the Israeli assault.

Ankara maintains that the action broke international law. Istanbul prosecutors have taken up the case at the urging of relatives of the victims and the IHH, the Islamist charity that helped organise the flotilla.

But Israel has pointed to a UN panel that concluded that the Gaza blockade was legal and that Turkey could have done more to prevent the flotilla from sailing, although it also criticised the IDF for excessive force.

At Tuesday’s hearing at an Istanbul court, prosecutors sought sentences of up to 18,000 years against the defendants for soliciting killing with torture, plunder, deprivation of liberty and other charges.

As none of the four are likely to visit Turkey, the case has a largely symbolic effect, underlining the continued estrangement between Turkey and Israel at a time when both countries have common interests – such as preventing Syria, a neighbour to both, from becoming a failed, extremist state.

“Our Israeli friends have misjudged the attitudes of the Turkish government and people to these deaths on the high seas,” said Ozdem Sanberk, a senior former diplomat who served as the Turkish member of the UN panel.

Adding that the court case was outside the control of the Turkish government, he said: “If the Israelis had apologised in the first few days in 2010 and paid some compensation we would not have to face such complications today . . . But the more time goes by, the more rigid positions become.”

The Israeli government denounced the court case as a “political puppet-show”.

“This is not a trial, this is a Kafkaesque procedure in which the so-called accused have not been served, summoned, notified or informed in any way that they are going to be charged or what the charges are,” said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry. “This is what you may call a show trial or a political puppet-show that has nothing to do with due legal procedure, and only serves as a propaganda show case.”

The rift between the two countries has remained despite attempts by the US and other third parties to bridge the gap, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, calling on Israel to apologise for the deaths, pay compensation and end the Gaza blockade.

In September, Mr Erdogan said he had been approached on behalf of Israel by “the richest Jewish man in the world” – whose identity he did not disclose – in a fruitless attempt at reconciliation.

Some Turkish officials argue that Ankara’s strategic importance has grown so much, particularly because of the upheaval of the Arab revolutions, that Washington has little choice but to maintain strong ties with the country, despite its rift with Israel.

Mr Palmor argued that the trial could not have taken place without the support of the Turkish government, suggesting that Ankara had no interest in improving relations with Israel. “This indicates that they want things to deteriorate even more,” he said.

Nevertheless, the countries’ commercial relationship has remained strong with Bloomberg reporting that two-way trade reached a record of $4.4bn last year. But the number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey dropped from about half a million a year before 2009 to 80,000 in 2011.

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