J'lem: Unclear if order to harass Israelis was from Turkey

Travelers detained, strip-searched at Istanbul airport; Ankara gives Israel two days to clear out envoys.

By
September 5, 2011 23:53
Turkish flag [illustrative]

Turkish flag 311 (R). (photo credit: Osman Orsal / Reuters)

 
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The Foreign Ministry was watching carefully to determine whether the harsh treatment meted out to Israeli travelers going through Istanbul’s airport on Monday was an aberration or part of a new policy directive coming from an Ankara keen on punishing Israel for not apologizing for the Mavi Marmara incident.

A Foreign Ministry official said Israel was told by the Turkish Foreign Ministry there were no new directives given to the Turkish airport authorities about how to deal with the thousands of Israeli travelers who fly through Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport in order to take advantage of cheaper Turkish Airway prices to North America, the Far East and South Africa.

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“We have to watch and see what will happen on future flights,” the official said. “We are monitoring the situation.”

What one woman traveler described on Israel Radio as a “humiliation” in Istanbul’s airport, where she was forced in a dark room to strip and undergo a full body search, came on the same day the Turkish Foreign Ministry ordered out of the country all diplomats at Israel’s embassy in Ankara above the level of second secretary – the lowest level in the Israeli Foreign Service.

Foreign Ministry officials confirmed Ella Alphek, the number two diplomat at the Ankara embassy, was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry and told that everyone above the second secretary level must leave the country by Wednesday.

Israel’s envoy to Ankara, Gabi Levy, is already back in Israel and set to retire from the Foreign Ministry.



There were conflicting reports whether the expulsion also pertained to Israel’s military attaché in Ankara, as well as the Mossad and police attachés. Among the few lowlevel diplomats who will remain at the embassy are its spokesman, Nizar Amir.

Amir, from the Druse town of Julis in the Galilee, only arrived in Ankara a few days ago, after completing the foreign ministry's cadets course in the summer.

Turkey on Friday already lowered its representation in its embassy in Tel Aviv to the second secretary level.

Israel’s consulate in Istanbul, which deals primarily with consular matters, has so far not been impacted by the downgrade of ties.

Moshe Pearlman, a businessman from Haifa who traveled through Istanbul on the way back from China, described his ordeal at the Istanbul airport on Israel Radio.

“I went to the Israel gate in Istanbul where two security officials wearing a vest that read ‘Police’ asked if I had an Israeli passport. When I said ‘yes,’ they put me in another line.”

Pearlman said he then went through a security check the likes of which he had never experienced.

“I went into a room, they locked the door and they told me to take off my clothes,” he said. “I thought at first that they wanted me only to take off the shirt, so I took it off. He then said to take off my t-shirt, my shoes, my socks, my pants – and I remained in my underwear. He then told me to take off the underwear. I asked if that was an order, and he was taken aback, and said, ‘Welcome to Turkey.’” Pearlman said he approached another security officer outside the room for an explanation, and was told these were the directives they had received.

“But you do the same thing in Tel Aviv,” the officer said.

Indeed, the Turkish media highlighted the security checks undergone by Turkish passengers in Tel Aviv, with the daily Hurriyet’s website headlining its story on the matter: “Turks, Israelis face tough time at respective airports.”

The paper reported that Turkish passengers “said they were separated from travelers from other countries as they headed back to Turkey on Sunday and taken into rooms for detailed body searches at Ben-Gurion Airport.”

“They immediately told the group from Bucharest to pass... but they took us into changing rooms. [We] took off our clothes and shoes. [They] searched our bodies with their hands and then with a detector,” Arif Çınar was quoted as saying at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul.

“They searched our bodies for explosives several times,” he said.

The paper quoted another passenger, Mustafa Teke, as saying he was asked to take off his clothes and remain naked for a body search, and officials forced him to do so when he refused.

Ben-Gurion Airport police said it had no record of any Turkish citizens being arrested or undergoing special security searches.

The Airports Authority, which has its own security system, told The Jerusalem Post, “Security at the airport works according to the security needs, and according to instructions from the professional authorities.”

Meanwhile, scores of Israeli travelers with Turkish Airlines tickets to or through Istanbul were trying frantically to change their tickets to other airlines on Monday.

At noon, just a couple of hours after the story of the searches at the Istanbul airport broke, Mark Feldman, the CEO of Jerusalem’s Zion Tours, said he had already received “two dozen calls” from people asking for seats on other airlines. Feldman said Turkish Airlines informed him they would not waive cancellation fees. Nevertheless, Feldman said he would not pay those fees, and was instead looking for tickets on one of Turkish Airlines’ Star Alliance partner carriers, such as Lufthansa.

Feldman said that until Turkish Airlines or the Turkish government ensured Israeli passengers would not be subjected to the kind of treatment they faced Monday, “we will not put people on Turkish Airlines.”

“Many people have seen Midnight Express,” Feldman said of the 1978 movie that chronicled brutality in a Turkish prison.

“I am not going to have my passengers experience Midnight Express themselves.”

Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.

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