Turkey cancelled joint military exercises with Israel and called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council after pro-Palestinian activists were killed when Israeli marines boarded aid ships bound for Gaza.
With several Turks reported to be among the dead, thousands of people converged on Taksim Square in downtown Istanbul to voice anger at Israel’s use of force and pray for the dead.
“This attack is another sign of the reckless levels that the Israeli government’s violent policies have reached,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in a televised speech.
At least 10 people were killed when firing broke out after Israeli commandos stormed one of six ships in a convoy that was organised by, among others, a Turkish human rights organisation.
Arinc said there were up to 400 Turks among nearly 600 people aboard the Mavi Maramara, the Turkish cruise vessel where the firing broke out.
The Israeli action could prove a death knell for an alliance between the Jewish State and Muslim but secular Turkey.
A breakdown in their relationship would pose problems for the United States, as the alliance between the two regional military heavyweights helped U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
Ties had come under increasing strain over the past year, due to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated criticism of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.
Standing in for Erdogan, who was rushing back from an official visit to Latin America to deal with the crisis, Arinc said: “We condemn Israel’s attack at the highest level.” He said Turkey, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, had called for an emergency meeting.
He also said Ankara’s ambassador to Israel had been recalled, three planned military joint exercises were cancelled, and he demanded that the seized ships be released and that Turkey be allowed to airlift wounded nationals back home.
The ships had around 700 people on board and were carrying 10,000 tonnes of medical supplies, housing material and other aid to Gaza. Turkey had urged Israel to allow them safe passage.
In an earlier statement the Turkish Foreign Ministry had called the Israeli action unacceptable, a breach of international law, and warned of possible “irreversible consequences in our relations”. Armed Forces Chief General Ilker Basbug cut short a visit to Egypt to return home, Turkish media reported.
Erdogan’s Islamist leaning AK Party will seek a third consecutive term in power in an election due next year, and a strong stand against Israel could go down well with voters.
Erdogan became a hero across the Islamic world by publicly berating Israeli President Shimon Peres when they shared a platform at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year.
Relations deteriorated further this year when an Israeli minister humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Israel on television.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was on his way to Washington from Latin America, was reported to have spoken on the telephone with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
Lebanon, chair of the non-permanent members of the Security Council for the month of May, backed Turkey’s call for an emergency meeting. Lebanese Foreign Minister Ali al-Shami said that together they would push for a “severe condemnation” of Israel either through a statement or a resolution.
“There has to be effective pressure,” he told Reuters.