Israel cuts diplomatic presence in Turkey amid protests

Turkish PM Erdogan accused Israel of terrorizing the region and likened an Israeli MP and member of the governing coalition to Hitler

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Israel said on Friday it was reducing its diplomatic presence in Turkey after protesters angered by its ground offensive into Gaza pelted its consulate in Istanbul with stones and draped Palestinian flags on the ambassador’s residence in Ankara.

The Israeli foreign ministry accused Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of “incitement,” saying it was ordering the return of diplomats’ families and trimming staffing to a minimum.

Erdogan accused the Jewish state on Wednesday of terrorizing the region and likened an Israeli MP and member of the governing coalition to Hitler. On Friday he maintained the attacks, saying there would be no improvement in relations whilst he or his administration remained in charge.

“(Israel) has always been oppressive, and continues to oppress. Hence, as Turkey, I cannot think of positive developments with Israel as long as I hold this duty,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul, shortly before he was due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Westerners may say I am stirring up tensions, but I have the mission of winning the consent of people and God,” he added.

Israel stepped up its land offensive in the Gaza Strip with artillery, tanks and gunboats on Friday after Islamist militants there rejected a proposed truce and kept firing rockets into Israeli territory.

Israel warned it could “significantly widen” an operation that Palestinian officials said had killed 258 people in Gaza in 10 days, most of them civilians.

Turkish riot police fired tear gas and water cannon early on Friday to disperse protesters outside the Israeli mission in Istanbul, but did not intervene in Ankara, where windows of the ambassador’s residence were smashed, local media reported.

“Die out murderer Jew,” had been scrawled on the wall across from the consulate in Istanbul.

“Israel strongly protests the blatant breach of diplomatic regulations... which were grossly violated by the Turkish authorities and security services during the demonstrations,” a statement from the Israeli foreign ministry said.

Later, around 3,000 people poured onto the humid streets of Istanbul after Friday prayers, chanting anti-Israel slogans and waving Palestinian flags, whilst passing cars honked in support.

“These protests will go on until all Israeli embassies are closed. I will attend all protests if I have to. I can’t even begin to express my anger at the massacre in Gaza,” one woman, who was pushing her baby in a pram, told Reuters.

There were also smaller demonstrations in Ankara and the eastern city of Diyabakir, but no repeat of earlier violence.
NATO member Turkey was once Israel’s closest ally in the region.

But Erdogan has been a strident critic of its treatment of the Palestinians, and has issued a series of broadsides against the Jewish state since the Gaza hostilities erupted.

Anti-Israeli sentiment runs high in Turkey, particularly among Erdogan’s largely conservative Sunni Muslim voter base, who he hopes will hand him victory in Turkey’s first direct presidential election next month.

Turkey’s current president Abdullah Gul was also due to meet Abbas in Istanbul on Friday, and urged the U.N. Security Council to take a stand against the Israeli offensive.

“I’m warning Israel once again that there will be much more serious consequences if it does not stop its aggressiveness and the escalation of incidents,” Gul told reporters.

Whilst trade between the countries remains largely unaffected, Israel’s diplomatic presence in Turkey had already been reduced.

Relations reached a nadir in 2010, when Israeli commandos stormed the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara sailing as part of a flotilla challenging the Jewish state's naval blockade of Gaza. Ten people were killed.

Efforts to rebuild bridges picked up after Netanyahu last year apologized for the raid and pledged to pay compensation as part of a U.S.-brokered effort at rapprochement. But progress later stalled.

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