Turkish PM defends Gaza outburst
AFP - Saturday, January 31
ANKARA (AFP) - - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Friday stood firm on his outburst at a heated debate with Israel's president as the Jewish state sought to calm tempers, saying bilateral ties would recover.
Erdogan received a hero's welcome and the Palestinian Hamas movement hailed his "courageous stand" after he stormed out of a debate on Gaza at the World Economic Forum at Davos following a clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
"We will never allow anyone to show disrespect to the prime minister of Turkey," Erdogan told a cheering crowd in Istanbul.
He slammed the hundreds of civilian deaths in Hamas-ruled Gaza during Israel's recent 22-day offensive, but said his anger was directed not at the Jewish people but "the practices of the Israeli government."
"The death of civilians cannot be seen as a simple work accident," Erdogan said.
In Ankara, Israeli ambassador Gaby Levy sought to defuse tensions, saying he is confident relations between the two "closest and... friendliest countries" will recover "within a period of time."
Turkey and Israel have overcome other spats in the past because their ties "are solidly based... on strategic interests," Levy told reporters.
"It is in the interest of both countries to start trying to calm down and move forward," he said.
The influential Turkish army, which has a series of cooperation accords with the Israeli military, stressed "national interests" in signalling that close relations would continue.
Erdogan said Turkey is determined to pursue peace efforts in the Middle East, while officials announced that Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas will visit Ankara next week to discuss "all aspects of the Palestinian problem, including efforts to secure unity among Palestinian groups."
Back from Davos, Erdogan was greeted in Istanbul by jubilant supporters of his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and chanting "Turkey is proud of you."
Before he marched off the stage in front of Peres and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Erdogan said Israel committed "barbarian" acts in Gaza, lashed out at the audience for applauding Peres' emotional defence of the war and vowed he would never return to Davos.
As Erdogan's gesture made headlines across Europe and the Middle East, Peres's office rejected claims by Turkish officials that the Israeli president had apologised.
A spokeswoman however confirmed the two leaders had "a friendly conversation" over the phone, adding that Erdogan said his move was directed not at Peres but at the moderator of the debate, who interrupted his speech.
Turkey is one of Israel's rare allies in the Muslim world but Erdogan has been a fierce critic of the Jewish state's military onslaught on Gaza that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.
Peres, a Nobel peace prize winner, defended the offensive, saying Israel had no other choice to stop Hamas rocket attacks.
Pointing his finger at a visibly agitated Erdogan, Peres said the prime minister would have done the same if rockets fell on Istanbul every night.
Erdogan was already under fire for the contacts Ankara maintained with Hamas during the Gaza war, with critics charging that Turkey has cast itself as a supporter of a movement listed as a terrorist group by much of the West.
"Hamas pays tribute to the courageous stand of Turkey's prime minister... who in Davos directly defended the victims of the criminal Zionist war against our children and women in Gaza," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Friday.
"We consider his departure from the room an expression of support for the victims of the Holocaust carried out by the Zionists," he said in a statement.
Despite the hero's welcome from his supporters, the opposition and foreign policy experts harshly criticised Erdogan's outburst.
"Mr. Erdogan has ruined Turkey's international prestige. Supporting the Palestinian cause is one thing, but supporting Hamas is something else," said Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the main opposition CHP party.
"Mr. Erdogan acted like a spokesman for an organisation that is classified as terrorist," he said.
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