Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and suspended military accords Friday, a day after publication of a U.N. report saying that Israel had used unreasonable force in a raid on a Gaza-bound ship that killed nine Turks.
Stung by Israel’s refusal to meet demands for a formal apology, pay compensation to families of the dead, and end the blockade of two million Palestinians living in the Gaza enclave, Turkey announced it was downgrading ties with the Jewish state further.
“Turkey-Israel diplomatic relations have been reduced to a second secretary level. All personnel above the second secretary level will be sent home by Wednesday at the latest,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara.
Israel’s ambassador Gabby Levy was currently in Israel and canceled plans to return to Turkey Thursday.
Israel Friday said it accepted the findings of the U.N. report, and that it hoped to mend ties with Turkey, but reiterated that it would not apologize for the deaths.
Immediately after the attack on the aid convoy last year, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel, suspended joint military exercises, and barred Israeli military aircraft from Turkish airspace.
Friday, Turkey went a step further by putting military pacts with its erstwhile ally on ice.
“All military agreements have been suspended,” Davutoglu added.
Turkey’s reaction to the long-awaited report, which also declared that Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal, deepened a rift that broke wide open in 2009 after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan lambasted the then Israeli president Shimon Peres in Davos over an Israeli offensive in Gaza.
Faced with radical changes wrought by the Arab Spring, both Turkey and Israel are desperately trying to adjust to the new political landscape in the region.
But enduring ill-feeling resulting from the flotilla incident has ruined chances of the regional military heavyweights working together, despite the United States’ efforts to encourage a rapprochement between two valued allies.
And Erdogan’s stand on the Palestinian issue has held Turkey in good stead among Arabs agitating for greater democracy, notably in Egypt and more recently Syria.
But Turkey has carefully avoided a complete breakdown in relations with Israel.
Both have benefited from military intelligence and cooperation in the past, and Turkey has its own security concerns over a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast.
An Israeli official said ongoing defense deals include the upgrade by Israel of Turkish tanks and F-16 jets, as well as the sale of military drone aircraft.
“We are studying the implications of the Turkish announcement,” the official said without elaborating on the value or prospects for those deals.
By stepping up diplomatic pressure in a calibrated fashion, Ankara has left open chances for a change of heart either by the current Israeli coalition, or a future government.
“The Israeli government is responsible for the point we have reached today. For as long as the Israeli government does not take the necessary steps, there is no question of returning from this point,” Davutoglu said.
Davutoglu said some of the report’s findings were questionable and that Turkey did not recognize the legitimacy of the blockade of Gaza.
“Turkey will take all measures which it sees as necessary for freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean,” the minister said.
“Turkey does not recognize Israel’s blockade of Gaza. It will secure the study of this blockade at the International Court of Justice,” he added.
Israel calls its Gaza blockade a precaution against arms reaching Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas by sea. Palestinians and their supporters say the blockade is illegal collective punishment, a view some U.N. officials have echoed.
The militant Hamas movement controlling Gaza issued a statement supporting Turkey’s stand.
“Hamas movement welcomes the Turkish step and the dismissal of the Israeli ambassador in Turkey and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli crime committed against the Freedom flotilla and the occupation’s insistence to continue its blockade on Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Davutoglu also said support would be given to Turkish and foreign victims of the Israeli raid to seek justice from courts. One of the nine Turks killed was a U.S. citizen.
The report, prepared by a panel headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, is expected to be formally handed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Friday and officially released then.
The New York Times posted on its website Thursday a copy it had obtained.
Davutoglu said Palmer and the deputy of the panel exceeded their authority in including views which were more political than legal.
“Turkey does not accept this… We are determined to bring the matter to international legal forums,” he said.
SUPPORT FOR PALESTINIANS
The report said Israeli commandos faced “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers” in the incident last year. It also said two Israeli marines suffered gun shot wounds, but stopped short of saying whether pro-Palestinian activists used firearms.
But in criticism of Israel, it said the amount of force used by the Israelis on board the Mavi Marmara, the largest in a flotilla of six ships that the crew said were delivering aid to Palestinians in Gaza, was “excessive and unreasonable.”
Davutoglu said the report cited evidence that most of those who killed were shot several times from close range.
There has been speculation that Turkey could pursue Israel through the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Turkey has already said it would support any move by the Palestinians to obtain recognition of statehood through the United Nations.
With the Palmer report still pending, Erdogan had canceled a trip to Egypt a few weeks ago due to the political flux in Cairo.
There was talk that Erdogan would go to the crossing between Egypt and Gaza during that trip, a symbolic visit that would have starkly demonstrated Israel’s growing isolation in the region since the fall of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak early this year.
(Reporting By Tulay Karadeniz and Daren Butler,; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Rosalind Russell)