ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey puts four former Israeli military commanders, including the head of the army, on trial in absentia this week for the 2010 killing of nine Turks on a Gaza-bound aid ship.
The trial, which begins in Istanbul on Tuesday, will further test relations between the one-time strategic allies and has been dismissed by Israel as a “show trial” and “political theatre”.
Relations between the Jewish state and what was once its only Muslim ally, crumbled after Israeli marines stormed the Mavi Marmara aid ship in May 2010 to enforce a naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip and killed nine Turks in clashes with activists on board.
The rift has continued despite U.S. efforts to encourage a rapprochement between the two regional powers whose cooperation it needs to address changes sweeping the Middle East.
Israel and NATO member Turkey, which both border Syria, once shared intelligence information and conducted joint military exercises, cooperation which has since been cancelled.
A Turkish state prosecutor is seek multiple life sentences for the now retired Israeli officers over their involvement in the nine killings and the wounding of more than 50 others.
The indictment names Israel’s former Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former Navy Commander Eliezer Marom, former Air Force Commander Amos Yadlin and former head of Air Force intelligence Avishay Levi, seeking prison sentences of more than 18,000 years for each of them.
Among the charges listed in the 144-page indictment are “inciting murder through cruelty or torture” and “inciting injury with firearms”.
A total of 490 people aboard the ship during the raid, including activists and journalists, are expected to give evidence. Normally barred from courtrooms, the trial will be officially recorded by television cameras, although proceedings are not expected to be broadcast.
“The ‘Blue Marmara Trial’ due to commence on November 6th in Istanbul, clearly falls under the category of a Show Trial; an act which has nothing to do with either law or justice,” Israel’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“This ”Trial“ does not qualify under any facet or foundation of a lawful judicial system, and is merely a propaganda display. It would be in Turkey’s interest to deal with this issue through bilateral dialogue,” it said.
A Turkish foreign ministry official declined comment, saying the incident was now a matter for the judiciary.
Ties between the two states began to unravel even before the Mavi Marmara raid after Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stormed off a stage he was sharing with Shimon Peres at a World Economic Forum in 2009, saying the Israeli President knew “how to kill”, a reference to the December 2008-January 2009 Gaza offensive.
But relations hit a new low when Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and froze military cooperation after a U.N. report into the Mavi Marmara incident released in September last year largely exonerated the Jewish state.
That report was meant to encourage a rapprochement between the two countries but ultimately deepened the rift when it concluded Israel had used unreasonable force but that the blockade on Gaza was legal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in July Israel and Turkey needed to repair their relationship, but attempts to rekindle the strategic relationship have failed.
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”, 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.
IHH, the Turkish Islamic humanitarian agency which owns the Mavi Marmara, has said it expects the Turkish court to issue arrest warrants for the retired officers who would be obliged to be extradited to Turkey, a claim dismissed by Israel.
Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Robin Pomeroy