Turkey has begun the prosecution of four top Israeli commanders over the deaths of nine Turkish activists at the hands of Israeli forces in 2010, a move that marks the increasingly antagonistic relationship between the two former allies.
An Istanbul criminal court unanimously accepted on Monday an indictment against Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, previously Israel’s chief of staff, and three other former top Israeli military officials, in a step that in effect kick-starts their prosecution in absentia.
“The risk is that that this dispute will mark a permanent rift between two countries that enjoyed decades of friendship, with centuries of good Turkish-Jewish relations before that,” said Ozdem Sanberk, a former senior Turkish diplomat, speaking in a personal capacity.
The 144-page indictment, submitted to the court last week, seeks nine life sentences against the Israelis for homicide and sets out other charges.
At issue is the Israeli assault in 2010 on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship seeking to break the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The indictment accuses Israeli forces of seeking to kill the passengers on the ship, who it says were armed only with instruments such as “flagpoles, spoons and forks”.
Mr Sanberk, who served on a UN panel looking at the Mavi Marmara incident, added that a solution to the dispute was in Israel’s hands – if it provided Turkey with the apology that Ankara has demanded, but which the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, has declined to date to give.
He expressed hope that Mr Netanyahu’s formation of a wide-ranging coalition could give the Israeli prime minister more scope to produce an apology.
However, Israel has refused on several occasions to do more than express regret for the incident, arguing the Israeli soldiers boarding the Mavi Marmara came under attack from the passengers and acted in self-defence.
The Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment on the case on Monday, saying it had not seen the indictments and was unaware of the precise nature of the charges brought against the Israeli officers. However, Israeli officials have repeatedly made clear that they regard the indictment as a political manoeuvre and that Ankara will receive no co-operation from Israel whatsoever.
Israel itself launched an internal inquiry into the killings on the Mavi Marmara soon after the incident, but the probe concluded that both the maritime blockade of Gaza and the raid itself were justified.
A three man UN-backed committee of investigation – on which Mr Sanberk served but whose findings he dissented from – came to similar conclusions. But it criticised Israel for the manner in which the raid was carried out, saying the force used by the Israeli naval commandos was “excessive and unreasonable”.
While the indictments are certain to infuriate both the Israeli government and the public, officials said it was unlikely that the state would seek to retaliate, for example by launching legal cases against the Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara.
“We are not going to retaliate in kind. That is not how we do things over here,” one Israeli official said.
Israel has long been concerned about the threat of criminal prosecution against its citizens in countries such as Britain, Spain and Belgium. Government lawyers have on several occasions been forced to issue travel warnings to generals and politicians, fearing they may be arrested abroad. The same warning is now likely to be issued with regard to Turkey – a country that until recently enjoyed particularly warm ties with senior Israeli military officers.