Turkey spearheads new approach to Gaza

Egemen Bagis.jpg

Turkey's minister of European affairs and chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagi?, made a bold appeal for the embargo on Gaza to be lifted on a visit to Brussels yesterday (9 June). At the same time in Washington, US President Barack Obama described the current situation there as "unsustainable" and called for "a new approach".

Bagi?, who was speaking to a number of selected journalists, went as far as saying that NATO should send a mission to end the Gaza blockade. Asked to clarify, he said that this was his personal view and "one of the options," and did not rule out a move by his country with the same objective.

Bagi? called a 31 May Israeli attack on a humanitarian flotilla an "Israeli aggression," an "act of piracy and terror" and a "barbarous, reckless act […] endangering peace globally".

Although those killed were Turkish nationals, he insisted that this was not just a Turkish-Israeli crisis. He said there were nationals of 31 countries on board the flotilla, all of whom could easily have been among the victims too.

He called for an international inquiry and multilateral action to end the Gaza blockade. He also called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "assume responsibility" for his "bullying" attitude, implying that he should resign.

"Why should the innocent people of Israel suffer because they have a prime minister and a foreign minister who prefer to act like bullies?" he asked.

Bagi? said the tragedy of the flotilla attack had at least woken up the international community as to the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who have been living under blockade since June 2007.

'NATO should send a fleet'

"I believe that NATO should send a fleet to put an end to the embargo, and also ensure the safety of Israelis and Palestinians at the same time," Bagi? said.

Asked if this would mean NATO having to defeat the Israeli fleet, he answered: "It's an illegal embargo."

Asked if Turkey had made such a request in the framework of NATO, he said it had not done so and stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity.

Bagi? further explained that he was against violence and said the goal of the flotilla had been to carry humanitarian goods. Such operations should be led by the international community, not NGOs, he said, adding that the attack had shown how vulnerable NGO workers are.

In response to a question, he did not exclude the possibility that his country would take the initiative on its own.

Asked if it would not make more sense, not to mention be more acceptable to Israel, for land borders to be opened to let humanitarian aid through and make sure that no weapons are being smuggled, he answered: "Who is going to do this checking? I wouldn't trust the Israeli checking," he said.

However, in another context, Bagi? praised the cooperation his country had enjoyed with Israel during the mandate of Ehut Olmert (2006-2009), at least until the Gaza incursion of January 2009.

NATO sources told EURACTIV that Turkey had not requested an operation to break the Gaza embargo. An operation by the Alliance looks "quite unrealistic," the sources added.

Ashton's first reaction 'a joke'

Speaking about the EU's reaction to the flotilla attack, Bagi? said the first reaction by Catherine Ashton, the Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, had been "a joke".

In that reaction, Ashton had called on the Israelis themselves to investigate the incident. But Bagi? added that the next statement by Ashton on behalf of the EU-27 had been better.

Asked by EURACTIV if his rather strong statements were conducive to convincing EU leaders that they would like to have Turkey at their side as a member country, Bagi? said Ankara would bring "a different perspective to the table" and perhaps "prevent the EU from making a mistake".

But he later added that Turkey "does not expect to become a member when the EU is not ready".

Obama receives Abbas

Meanwhile in Washington, following a meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, US President Barack Obama said at a press conference that the current situation is "unsustainable" and indicated that he would consult with Europe and Egypt, as well as the PA and Israel, to formulate a new approach.

"There should be ways of focusing narrowly on arms shipments, rather than focusing in a blanket way on stopping everything and then in a piecemeal way allowing things into Gaza," Obama said.

He also announced that the US was granting an additional $400 million in assistance for housing, school construction and business development, not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank.

The press in Israel notes that Obama rejected the current Israeli model for controlling trade and supplies into the Strip, even as he acknowledged Israel's legitimate security concerns and stopped short of calling for the blockade to be lifted.

Nine people were killed on 31 May, when the Israeli navy intercepted ships carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists towards the Gaza Strip. The bloodshed sparked strong reactions of condemnation from the European Commission, the European Parliament and major political groups (EURACTIV 31/05/10).

The bloodshed has hurt Israel's diplomatic relations, especially with Turkey. The flotilla was organised, among others, by a Turkish human rights organisation. Also, the nine people killed were Turkish nationals. Several Turkish flags were visible on the boats.

Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, who is in Chile on a Latin American tour, cut short his visit on hearing of the attack. Thousands marched in Turkish cities to denounce Israel.

Recently a delegation of MEPs visited Gaza, despite Israeli disapproval (EURACTIV 26/05/10). The Israeli government has a policy of not facilitating the entry of political delegations to Gaza from its territory.

The reason for this policy, as the Embassy of Israel explained in a recent communiqué, "stems from Israel's clear attitude regarding Hamas [which controls the Gaza strip], a brutal terrorist organisation, which openly calls for Israel's destruction and appears on the EU's list of terrorist organisations".

Upon their return, MEPs and European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek called for an end to the Gaza blockade.

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