Irish Times: Turkey threatens to cut ties with Israel

Relatives mourn behind the coffin of Turkish activist Cevdet Kiliclar - who was killed when Israel seized a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza - during a funeral ceremony at Beyazit mosque in Istanbul today. Photograph: Reuters/Murad Sezer

Turkey's prime minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of betraying its religion today, as Palestinian flags flew at the funeral of a Turkish activist killed when Israeli commandos raided an aid ship bound for Gaza.

The killing of nine Turks on a Turkish flagged vessel in international waters during an operation by Israeli commandos to stop the aid convoy on Monday has brought relations between the once-close allies to virtual breaking point.

Mr Erdogan ramped up anti-Israel rhetoric in a televised speech, while addressing supporters of his Islamist-leaning AK Party in the central Anatolian city of Konya.

"You (Israel) killed 19-year-old Furkan Dogan brutally. Which faith, which holy book can be an excuse for killing him?" Mr Erdogan asked, referring to one of the nine dead activists.

"I am speaking to them in their own language. The sixth commandment says "thou shalt not kill". Did you not understand? I'll say again. I say in English "you shall not kill". Did you still not understand? So I'll say to you in your own language. I say in Hebrew 'Lo Tirtzakh'."

Pledging never to forsake the Palestinian people, Mr Erdogan likened the Israeli killings of Palestinians to Turkish civilian deaths caused by conflict with Kurdish separatist militants.

"They killed the babies in their mothers' arms like the terrorists here. They killed innocent children on their bicycles," he said.

He went on to stand up for the Palestinian Hamas government.

"Hamas are resistance fighters fighting for their land, they are Palestinians. They won an election and now they are in Israel's prisons. I told this to the Americans, that I do not accept Hamas as a terrorist group."

AK Party supporters responded with chants of "Mujahid prime minister" -- using the term for Islamic holy warrior.

In Istanbul, the father of Cevdet Kiliclar collapsed beside his son's coffin as thousands knelt in prayer at the Beyazit Mosque to mourn the 38-year-old journalist who had been working for the Turkish Islamic charity that organised the aid flotilla.

Black, white and green Palestinan flags flew over the congregation, along with some from Hamas and Hizbollah.

"The people have shown an appropriate response but our government hasn't yet," said Nuri Dogan, a 19-year-old student among the mourners, adding he wanted a boycott of Israel.

A service was held a day earlier for eight other Turks shot when Israeli marines stormed the Mavi Marmara on Monday to stop a convoy of six ships trying to break a naval blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Public anger over the Israeli actions taps both nationalist and Islamist sentiments in Turkey, and analysts expected Erdogan to take a strong stand with a general election due by mid-2011.

Deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc delivered a cooler assessment of the desperate state of relations with Israel in an interview with the NTV news channel.

"We may plan to reduce our relations with Israel to a minimum," Mr Arinc said. "But to assume everything involving another country is stopped in an instant, to say we have crossed you out of our address book, is not the custom of our state."

Ankara, which had supported the pro-Palestinian convoy, has already cancelled joint military exercises, recalled its ambassador to Israel and successfully called for an emergency UN Security Council to condemn the Israeli action.

The United States regards the two military heavyweights as crucial allies in the Middle East, and analysts expect Washington to try to stave off a final split.

Turkey, a moderate, secular country, recognised the Jewish state soon after its establishment in 1948 and in the 1990s it forged military and intelligence cooperation agreements with Israel, when both had hostile relations with Syria.

With Turkey a customer for Israeli arms, bilateral trade reached $2.5 billion in 2009. Projects worth several billion dollars are in the pipeline in water, energy and agriculture.

However, since the AK Party came to power in 2002 Turkey, Nato's only Muslim member, has sought better relations with Iran and Arab neighbours, notably Syria.

Friendship with Israel began wearing thin following an Israeli offensive in Gaza in late 2008.

After that, Mr Erdogan became one of Israel's most trenchant critics, and relations started to spiral downwards rapidly.