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In Istanbul, Erdogan Holds Mass Rally, Then OIC Summit, to Protest Israel

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led a mass rally and then hosted a summit of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul on Friday to forge a united response to Israel over the killing of Palestinian protesters.

Tens of thousands of Turkish people gathered at a government-led rally after Friday prayers to display solidarity with Palestinians after Israeli forces killed at least 60 people and wounded more than 2,000 on Monday when they protested the opening ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

“If the Muslim world stands against cruelty in Gaza together, Israel’s recklessness will not last,” the president told the crowd in Istanbul’s Yenikapi Square.

President Erdogan also castigated the United Nations for failing to stand up to the U.S. over the issue of Jerusalem. The move of U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem aroused swelling anger and backlash across the region, and the opening of the embassy on Monday saw Israeli forces killing unarmed Palestinian protesters across Gaza border.

Erdogan renewed his criticism of Israel and previously declared the contested city a “red line” for Turkey and Muslims across the region. 

The Turkish leader also defended Hamas and rejected to describe it as a terrorist organization.  “Hamas is not a terrorist organization,” the president said. “It is a resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.”

“Israel must certainly be held accountable for the innocent people it has massacred in front of international law. We will follow this issue in the United Nations General Assembly as well,” Erdogan said at the opening session of the summit of Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul.

Leaders of the several Muslim countries attended the summit. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the Muslim countries “to totally cut their relations with the Zionist regime (Israel).”

President Erdogan even equated the Israeli violence against Palestinians with Nazi atrocities against the Jews during the Second World War.

“The children of those being subject to all sorts of torture in concentration camps during World War Two now attacking Palestinians with methods that would put Nazis to shame,” Reuters quoted him as saying.

Turkish Parties React to Israeli Violence Against Palestinians

Turkey’s political parties put aside their differences during the election season and squarely ascribed the blame on Israel for the mayhem unleashed on civilian Palestinian protesters.

The issue has suddenly become a central element of the political debate in Turkey in the leading up to the presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. President Erdogan shrugged off the criticism from the opposition parties over what they say “meager reaction” to Israel. 

On Wednesday, opposition parties in Turkish Parliament offered a draft bill envisaging the termination of a series of military and economic deals with Israel, including the Mavi Marmara agreement, which settled a years-long dispute over the killing of nine Turkish citizens in an aid flotilla bound for Gaza in 2010.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has the majority in Parliament blocked the bill. 

In response to critics, Erdogan said Turkey has taken several steps for action.

“We declared three days of mourning. Turkish Parliament convened with a special agenda. We called for an emergency meeting of Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC),” the president noted.

Additionally, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and recalled its envoy for consultations.

Israel’s violent response to protesters has taken a toll on the Turkish-U.S. relations as well.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Muharrem Ince pressed the government to withdraw Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington, D.C. The CHP saw the U.S. as equally responsible for the tragic episodes that played out near Gaza border. He also dismissed Istanbul rally as a political show.

Cigdem Topcuoglu whose husband was killed during Mavi Marmara raid said the rally in Istanbul was not held for Jerusalem, but for the June 24 elections.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in mutual recriminations with Erdogan.

“Erdogan is among Hamas’s biggest supporters and there is no doubt that he well understands terrorism and slaughter. I suggest that he not preach morality to us,” Netanyahu tweeted.

That answer, however, appeared to be welcomed by Erdogan who said Turkey’s response seemed to touch nerves of the Israeli prime minister.

Islamist Felicity Party leader Temel Karamollaoglu slammed the government for maintenance of ties with Israel and called for swift action, like the cancellation of all deals.

Newly established Good Party Chairwoman Meral Aksener joined the chorus and criticized Israel in harshest terms. She also accused Erdogan and his government of hypocrisy in its policy against Israel.

The violent episode in Gaza suddenly elevated the Palestinian conflict into the center of Turkish politics during the campaign period, with parties vying to claim the moral leadership of the issue by attacking the government’s policies.

Israel and Regional Politics

The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict had always had repercussions for domestic politics of the Muslim countries across the Middle East for many decades. Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as one of the early champions of the Palestinian cause in the 1950s and 1960s while other leaders followed his suit in later decades. 

Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon all fought against Israel and their internal politics were directly shaped by the fallout of the Palestine-Israel conflict for much of the second half of the 20th century. 

The issue of Palestine has, however, slightly and gradually faded away from priorities of populist and nationalist leaders’ agenda. A sense of resignation sank in after decades of efforts yielded no result for a Palestinian statehood. And with Arab Spring, regional countries have been beset by uprisings, civil war, sectarian strife and dysfunctional governments across the Middle East and North Africa.

Leaders and governments now mostly focus on tackling domestic challenges and festering economic problems. In the late 2000s, a new political leader entered the fray, claiming the moral leadership of Palestinians’ decades-old struggle.

Erdogan, both as a prime minister and president, showed a keen interest in the conflict and repeatedly traded barbs with Israel’s leaders over the past decade. In 2009, he stormed out of a televised panel in Davos. His angry reaction to Israel’s President Shimon Peres captured attention.

Next year came Mavi Marmara event. Israeli navy commandos killed nine Turkish activists on board the ship.

It led to a serious deterioration of relations and both countries expelled envoys. Israel issued an apology in 2013, but it brought no reconciliation. After six years of estrangement, Turkey and Israel finally reached an accord in 2016 to settle the dispute and resume full diplomatic relations.

Tel Aviv agreed to pay near $20 million to Ankara in reparations as part of the reconciliation deal.

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