Turkey and Israel clash again over aid flotilla

Turks reject claim by Benjamin Netanyahu that they could have prevented the deadly confrontation with Israeli troops.

ISTANBUL // Turkey and Israel clashed again yesterday as the Turkish foreign minister condemned the Israeli prime minister's claim that Ankara had sought a confrontation over an aid flotilla sailing to Gaza. "No one else can take the blame for killing civilians in international waters," Ahmet Davutoglu said. "Israel has killed civilians, and should take the responsibility for having done so."

Israeli commandos intercepted the six-vessel flotilla organised by a Turkish aid group in May, killing nine people on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship. In evidence to an internal Israeli investigating commission on Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Turkey, saying Ankara "did not prevent the Marmara's attempt to break the naval blockade" of the Gaza Strip. "Apparently, the Turkish government did not see that a possible incident ? was against their interests," the Israeli premier said.

The attack on the aid flotilla in international waters brought relations between the former close allies to breaking point, with Ankara recalling its ambassador, calling off joint military exercises with Israel and threatening to cut ties completely if Israel did not offer an apology. Israel met one of Ankara's demands when it sent the Mavi Marmara and two other aid ships back to Turkey last weekend, but has so far rejected any idea of an apology.

There had been efforts behind the scenes to smooth over the mutual resentment since the incident, but Mr Netanyahu's evidence did not help. "Unfortunately Israel still does not answer why they attacked in such a manner and especially on the high seas," a senior Turkish diplomat told The National. "Those are the crucial questions that need to be answered." Accounts by Turkish diplomats and activists about the events leading up to the raid draw a radically different picture from that described by Mr Netanyahu in his evidence. Turkey and Israel confirm that they were in contact before the raid, but they blame each other for failing to stop the violence.

Mr Netanyahu said his government contacted the Turks and the Egyptians to prevent a clash. But "apparently, the Turkish government did not see that a possible incident between Turkish activists and Israel was against their interests, and certainly not something that justified exerting effective pressure" on the activists, he said. But Ankara insists it had nothing to do with the initiative of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief, which is known as IHH, to deliver aid to Gaza. The IHH is an Islamic charity that has made aid for the people of Gaza one of its main missions. Israel says the IHH is close to Hamas and has banned the organisation. But IHH officials say the organisation rejects violence and that contact with Hamas is unavoidable for a charity that wants to help people in the Gaza Strip, which is run by the Islamist movement. "We tried to dissuade them," the Turkish diplomat said of his government's contacts with IHH officials before the ships set sail for Gaza. "But there was no possibility to stop them physically." He added that Ankara also told the Israelis of the failed attempt to convince the IHH to cancel the trip. Several parliamentary deputies from Turkey's ruling party were planning to be on board the Mavi Marmara before it set sail for Gaza, but called off their plans at the last minute. Turkey's opposition has called on the government to explain why the deputies did not board the ship and whether they stayed away because Israel had warned that it would use violence. Ankara says it did not foresee the use of force by Israel. Mr Davutoglu had asked Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, not to use violence against the IHH ships, he said. IHH members have said the Israeli soldiers started firing on the people on board immediately after landing on the Mavi Marmara. Israel says the soldiers acted in self-defence after coming under attack from activists. Mr Davutoglu and Mr Barak had another telephone conversation immediately after the raid. This time, it was an angry exchange. "They were shouting at each other," a Turkish diplomat said. Both Turkey and Israel are to take part in an inquiry by the United Nations that began yesterday. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, bargained with officials from Israel, Turkey, the US and other governments before launching the assessment of the attack, under the chairmanship of New Zealand's former prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer. Clarifying whether the panel will interview Israeli military chiefs, the UN said members will "receive and review reports of national investigations into the incident and request such clarifications and information as it may require from relevant national authorities". Turkish officials have said they want ties with Israel to recover. It needs a functioning relationship with Israel if it wants to fulfil its aim to become a major political player in the region. For Israel, secular Turkey is an important political ally in the Muslim world, a military partner and a popular holiday destination for thousands of visitors each year. Meanwhile, Turkish prosecutors, acting after relatives of some of the people killed in the raid brought charges against the Israeli authorities, have started their own investigation on the ship in the southern Turkish port of Iskenderun. In his evidence to the Israeli inquiry yesterday, Mr Barak said Israeli government leaders had considered the possibility that its troops would meet violent resistance aboard the aid flotilla. Seven senior ministers "brainstormed" scenarios for intercepting the six ships and were sceptical about statements the passengers would practise non-violent resistance, he said. "We regret any loss of life," said Mr Barak. "But we would have lost more lives if we had behaved differently." @Email:tseibert@thenational.a * With additional reporting from James Reinl at the United Nations