Hundreds of protesters chanting “Murderer Israel!” gathered outside an Istanbul
court on Tuesday at the start of a trial in absentia of a group of former
Israeli military commanders, including former chief of staff Lt. Gen. (res.)
The officers are being charged with the deaths of nine
Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the 2010 flotilla attempt to
break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
The trial of four of the most senior
retired commanders, which according to Turkish media reports will start with at
least three consecutive days of hearings, has been dismissed by Israel as a
politically motivated “show trial” and threatens to further strain already
Ties between Jerusalem and what was once its only
Muslim ally crumbled after the incident, in which some of the soldiers who tried
to forcibly commandeer the ship were injured in clashes with those onboard that
left nine of the passengers dead.
Over a dozen witnesses testified in the
first several hours of the trial according to Turkish media reports and various
Twitter accounts of the case.
The reports indicated that the witnesses
included statements from the families of the nine dead passengers and people
from other ships in the flotilla as well as surviving activists from the Mavi
Ahmed Dogan – the father of 19-year-old Furkan Dogan, the
youngest of the dead passengers – said he saw evidence showing that his son had
been “shot in the face,” according to the reports.
Mary Ann Wright, a
65-yearold former US Army colonel who was aboard the nearby Challenger 1 ship,
testified about the scale of the military force involved in stopping the
flotilla as well as the soldiers’ conduct vis-a-vis the firing of paintballs and
tossing of stun grenades. According to the reports, Wright said she believed
that such a force could only have been meant to attack.
The reports could
not be confirmed and no Israeli officials are present at the trial to make
objections or cross-examine the witnesses.
It was also difficult to
decipher what aspects of the testimony were part of the overall narratives of
alleged mistreatment and what were actual allegations of crimes, as claims of
“torture” were combined with passengers’ complaints of having their hands tied
behind their back or being otherwise physically restrained in what they say was
a rough manner.
The trial reopens a wound in a rift between Israel and
Turkey that remains raw despite US efforts to encourage a rapprochement between
the two regional powers whose alliance was a mainstay of Washington’s influence
in an unstable region.
Israel and NATO member Turkey, which both border
Syria, once shared intelligence and conducted joint military exercises,
cooperation which has since been canceled.
Several hundred people, many
wearing the Arab keffiyeh headscarf around their necks adorned with the Turkish
and Palestinian flags, crowded outside the courthouse as witnesses and relatives
of those killed in the raid began to arrive.
On a board erected outside
the courthouse by IHH – the Islamic group which owns the Mavi Marmara and which
Israel has said is in league with various terror groups – protesters scribbled
the slogans “Israel, your end is near,” “Down with Israel,” “The revenge of our
martyrs will be bitter.”
Responding to the start of the trial, Foreign
Minister Avigdor Liberman said that the “opening of the kangaroo court against
the Israeli military officials in Turkey demonstrates that there is no interest
in repairing relations on the part of Turkish authorities.”
cooperation with Israel to solve problems in our region, the Turkish authorities
are creating more unnecessary conflicts and tensions. We have respect for Turkey
and its citizens but we will not apologize for fulfilling our duty [by]
defending Israeli citizens,” he said.
“We will continue to do everything
we can to defend the Israeli officials and all of our brave soldiers from
‘lawfare,’ the new combat used against them,” Liberman added.
Embassy in Israel had no substantive comment, saying that the case is the
responsibility of the Turkish Ministry of Justice.
A total of 490 people,
including activists and journalists, are expected to testify at the
The 144-page indictment is seeking multiple life sentences
totaling over 18,000 years for each of the defendants – Ashkenazi, former navy
head Adm. (res.) Eliezer Marom, former Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen.
(res.) Amos Yadlin and former head of air force intelligence, Avishay Levi. It
lists “inciting murder through cruelty or torture” and “inciting injury with
firearms” among the charges.
Israel has dismissed the case as “political
theater,” saying the accused had not even been notified of the
Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and froze military
cooperation after the UN-sponsored Palmer Commission report into the 2010
incident released in September of last year largely exonerated Israel by calling
the Gaza blockade legal under international law.
Israel imposed the
blockade as part of efforts to undermine Hamas’s ability to build up its
military arsenal and to isolate Hamas diplomatically.
That report also
had mixed conclusions regarding the actual altercations on the Mavi Marmara,
finding both that the soldiers had been attacked, but also that they had used
unreasonable force in repelling the attacks.
Turkey has demanded a formal
apology, compensation for victims and the families of the dead, and for the Gaza
blockade to be lifted.
Israel has voiced “regret,” falling short of the
full apology demanded, and has offered to pay into what it called a
“humanitarian fund” through which casualties and relatives could be compensated.