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Turkey expels Israel ambassador over flotilla raid

September 2nd, 2011 10:32 am by MATTI FRIEDMAN and SUZAN FRASER

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador and said Friday it is cutting military ties with the country over its refusal to apologize for last year's raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed nine people.

Turkey's move came before the anticipated publication Friday of a U.N. report on violence aboard a Gaza-bound protest flotilla, further straining a relationship that had been a cornerstone of regional stability.

The report, obtained by The New York Times and posted on its website, said Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is a "legitimate security measure." But it also said Israel's use of force against the flotilla was "excessive and unreasonable," according to the newspaper.

An Israeli official said the report showed Israel's naval blockade was in keeping with international law. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the report had yet to be officially released. He said Israel expected it to be made public by the U.N. later Friday.

Turkey has made an Israeli apology a condition of improving diplomatic ties. Israeli officials say the report does not demand an Israeli apology, establishing instead that Israel should express regret and pay reparations.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the government was downgrading diplomatic ties with Israel to the level of second secretary and that the ambassador and other high-level diplomats would the country by Wednesday.

He said all military agreements signed between the former allies were also being suspended. In other measures, Davutoglu said Turkey would back flotilla victims families' court actions against Israel and take steps to ensure "free navigation" in the eastern Mediterranean. He did not elaborate but some analysts suggested Turkey could send navy vessels to escort aid ships in international waters in the future.

"The time has come for Israel to pay for its stance that sees it above international laws and disregards human conscience," Davutoglu said. "The first and foremost result is that Israel is going to be devoid of Turkey's friendship."

"As long as the Israeli government does not take the necessary steps, there will be no turning back," the minister said.

Asked to comment on the fact that the U.N. report does not recommend an Israeli apology, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said: "To be frank, the report is null and void for us."

Davutoglu said the report "displayed the violence committed by the Israeli soldiers," but also criticized it for describing Israel's naval blockade as a legitimate security measure and in line with international law.

"Turkey does not recognize the Israel's embargo on Gaza," Davutoglu said, adding that Turkey would take steps to have the International Court of Justice and the United Nations to look into its legality.

Relations between Turkey and Israel, once close, have soured in recent years as Turkey has tilted away from the West. They deteriorated sharply after the flotilla bloodshed.

The U.N. report says "Turkey and Israel should resume full diplomatic relations, repairing their relationship in the interests of stability in the Middle East and international peace and security," according to the copy obtained by The New York Times.

Turkey announced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and suspension of military cooperation hours before the report was to be published, the most significant downgrading in ties between the two countries since the bloody flotilla attack last year.

The Turkish decision increases Israel's isolation at a sensitive time.

The collapse of Israel's relationship with Turkey comes as it faces turmoil in ties with another longtime regional ally, Egypt, where longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was deposed earlier this year and where there have been growing calls to revoke the three-decade-old Egypt-Israel peace agreement.

It also comes as Israel seeks to muster international support against an attempt by the Palestinians to have their state recognized at the U.N. later this month.

Israeli officials would not immediately comment on the Turkish decision.

In Gaza, Hamas applauded the Turkish move.

"This is a natural response to the Israeli crime against the freedom flotilla" and to the continuation of the naval blockade, spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

There had been debate in Israel's government over an apology that would placate Turkey and salvage ties, but the final decision was not to apologize.

A senior Israeli government official who had seen the report told the AP earlier this week that Israel has come to believe that Turkey is intent on worsening ties with Israel in order to bolster its own position in the Arab and Islamic world. While Israel does not rule out quiet talks with Turkey on an expression of regret and reparations to families of the dead activists, the report does not ask for an Israeli apology and there will not be one, he said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed aboard the Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010, after passengers resisted a takeover by Israeli naval commandos. The flotilla was en route to Gaza in an attempt to bring international attention to Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory. Each side blamed the other, claiming self-defense.

The fatalities included eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American activist.

After the violence triggered an international outcry, Israel eased restrictions on goods moving into Gaza overland but left the naval blockade in place.

The activists charge the blockade constitutes collective punishment and is illegal. Israel asserts that it is necessary to prevent weapons from reaching the militants who regularly bombard Israeli towns with rockets from Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas.

The U.N. committee established in the aftermath of the incident was made up of two international diplomats — former leaders of New Zealand and Colombia — one representative from Israel and one from Turkey.

Participants in the flotilla, the committee wrote, "acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade." Most passengers were peaceful, according to the report, but a small group was prepared for organized resistance. These passengers were "armed with iron bars, staves, chains, and slingshots, and there is some indication that they also used knives."

After soldiers rappelled onto the deck from helicopters, according to the report, "three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those passengers. Several others were wounded."

"No satisfactory explanation has been provided to the Panel by Israel for any of the nine deaths," according to the report as quoted by the paper.

The committee noted "forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range."

The senior Israeli government official said those hit in the back were attacking soldiers when they were shot from behind by other soldiers acting to save their comrades.

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Matti Friedman reported from Jerusalem.

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