Turkey expels Israel envoy and suspends ties

TURKEY expelled the Israeli ambassador last night and suspended military ties with its one-time ally after a United Nations report slammed the “excessive” force used by Israel in a raid on a Gaza aid flotilla.

A day after leaked extracts of the report into last year’s commando raid appeared in the media, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the government in Ankara had decided on a series of steps as a mark of protest.

Although the report has yet to be released, Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, said Ankara would reject it, regarding it as “null and void”.

The Israeli government indicated it would accept most of the findings, but claimed vindication over its right to impose a blockade on the Palestinian territory run by Hamas.

Turkey pulled its ambassador out of Tel Aviv immediately after the raid in May last year, and Mr Davutoglu said last night ties would now be further eroded.

“All officials over the level of second secretary, primarily the ambassador, will turn back to their country at the latest on Wednesday,” he said.

“Second, all the military agreements between Israel and Turkey are suspended.”

Mr Davutoglu said Ankara also planned to challenge Israel’s right to impose a blockade on the Gaza Strip before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the UN’s highest court.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was last night holding consultations about how to respond to Ankara’s moves.

A senior Israeli official, quoted by public radio, said “relations between the two countries have been set back by years”.

The measures announced by Turkey came after a leaked copy of the UN-mandated report criticised Israeli troops for using “excessive” and “unreasonable” force when boarding the ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010.

The report’s official release has been delayed several times because of the failure of Turkey and Israel to agree a final version. A UN spokesman said, however, that it was expected to be handed to secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in coming days.

Turkey had been Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world and the two countries held regular joint military exercises, but ties have been deteriorating since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Relations between the two countries went into crisis when eight Turks and an American of Turkish descent were killed on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship of the six-vessel convoy, after Israeli special forces boarded it in international waters.

“Israel’s decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable,” said the inquiry, led by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer.

It said forensic evidence showed “most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range” and this has “not been adequately accounted for” by Israel.

It added, however, that the flotilla “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade” and the Israelis “faced significant, organised and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, requiring them to use force for their own protection”.

The inquiry called on Israel to make “an appropriate statement of regret” for the raid and pay compensation to the families of the dead.

A senior Israeli official indicated that Mr Netanyahu’s government would accept the findings but with some reservations.

“We will announce our acceptance of the report after its official publication, with specific reservations,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

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