ISTANBUL/JERUSALEM: 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 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of “incitement”, saying it was ordering the return of diplomats’ families and trimming staffing to a minimum.
Erdoğan had 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 said there would be no improvement in relations between the two countries while 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,” Erdoğan told reporters in Istanbul.
He also criticized the West and the Muslim world for what he said was their silence in the face of “inhumane attacks”.
“Westerners may say I am stirring up tensions, but I have the mission of winning the consent of people and God.”
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 at least 260 people in 10 days, most of them civilians.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Istanbul and said that Palestinian authorities were working with the international community and “brotherly Muslim countries” towards an immediate ceasefire.
Early on Friday, Turkish riot police fired tear gas and water cannon 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.
Around 3,000 people poured onto the streets of Istanbul after Friday prayers, chanting anti-Israel slogans and waving Palestinian flags, while 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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’s largely conservative Sunni Muslim voter base, who he hopes will hand him victory in Turkey’s first direct presidential election next month.
While bilateral trade remains largely unaffected, Israel’s diplomatic presence in Turkey had already been downgraded.
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 mend fences picked up after Netanyahu last year apologized for the raid and pledged to pay compensation as part of a U.S.-brokered rapprochement. But progress later stalled.