Turkish PM wishes to visit Gaza

Date: 7/19/2011

ANKARA – Turkey's prime minister said on Tuesday he was considering visiting the Hamas–run Gaza Strip, a move likely to anger Israel amid diplomatic efforts to overcome already strained bilateral ties.

"If the conditions allow, I'm thinking of visiting Gaza," Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters. "The foreign ministry will be working on it. I wish to make such a visit, depending on the outcome."

He said he would like to cross to the Palestinian enclave following a planned visit to Egypt, the date of which has not yet been determined.

The trip, if it happens, is likely to exacerbate tensions between Turkey and Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group.

The two one–time allies are already in the grips of a severe crisis since May last year when Israeli troops killed nine Turkish activists aboard an aid ship that tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Israel has slammed previous contacts between Turkey and Hamas, which took control of Gaza in 2007 after routing Fatah loyalists.

But Erdogan's Islamist–rooted government insists that peace cannot be achieved in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict if Hamas is excluded from the process.

Erdogan, whose frequent outbursts against Israel have earned him a hero's status in the Arab street, has rejected the "terrorist" label for Hamas, defending the Islamist group as "resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land."

A Hamas official in Gaza welcomed Erdogan's intentions.

"We welcome this visit by Mr Erdogan, which will be historic if it goes ahead as it shows Turkish support for the Palestinian cause and political and moral backing to break the political siege imposed on Gaza" by Israel, Ismail Radwan told AFP.

"This visit will encourage Arab and Muslim leaders to break the siege and visit the Gaza Strip," he said.

The Israeli foreign ministry would say only that any potential Erdogan visit was the concern of Egypt, which has a border with Gaza, and Turkey.

Erdogan announced his intention to go to Gaza shortly after a Turkish official voiced hope that Israel would apologise for last year's bloodshed on the Mavi Marmara ferry as part of fence–mending talks between the two countries.

"I would be surprised if there were no apologies since both sides have the political will to resolve this crisis," ambassador Ozdem Sanberk, a member of the UN panel probing the Israeli raid, told AFP on Tuesday.

"We are heading toward a solution probably toward the end of the month," he added.

"Bilateral contacts are ongoing, not on a regular basis... I expect positive developments," said Sanberk, who is involved in the negotiations.

Israel's Haaretz daily reported on Sunday that the defence establishment in the Jewish state wanted to see ties with Turkey repaired, even supporting an apology to Ankara over the 2010 raid.

Ankara demands an apology and compensation for the victims' families as a condition to repair ties.

Israeli lawmakers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have said publicly that the Jewish state will not apologise for the raid, warning that expressing any such sentiment would be humiliating.

But Haaretz said that defence and justice ministry officials have in recent weeks suggested that Israel could in fact head off potential lawsuits by Turkish human rights organisations by offering an apology.

Israeli officials also acknowledge that upgrading relations with Ankara is a high diplomatic priority and that Israel would benefit from a return to good ties.

The once–flourishing relations began to visibly deteriorate after Erdogan's fierce criticism of Israel's devastating offensive on Gaza at the turn of 2009 that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.

Last month, Erdogan renewed a call on Israel "to lift as soon as possible the inhumane and unlawful blockade" of Gaza and allow the entry of goods, notably construction materials to rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the offensive.


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