ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Leaders from the Middle East and Asia condemned Israel’s raid on a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza at a summit on Tuesday, calling on the Jewish state to end its “inhuman” blockade of the Palestinian territory.
In a diplomatic coup for Turkey, all members of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) except Israel itself denounced it for last week’s raid, in which 9 pro-Palestinian Turkish activists were killed.
“It’s not possible for us to forgive this,” Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, told a news conference at the end of the summit, which brought together Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, among others.
Gul said Israel could go some way towards repairing the damage arising from the raid by offering “acceptable restitution”, but added: “This cannot be forgotten by Turkey.”
A final declaration of the 20-member forum issued at the end of the two-day summit omitted any reference to Israel, which as a fellow member had objected to such mention.
But Gul, who as Turkey’s president was also acting as chairman of CICA, read a separate declaration in which all members except Israel criticised Israel’s actions.
“All member states except one expressed their great concern and condemnation for the actions undertaken by the Israeli defence forces against an international civilian flotilla transporting humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip,” Gul said.
“In this context they stressed the urgency of lifting the inhuman blockade of the Gaza Strip.”
Israel, to avoid exposing any senior official to Turkey’s wrath, had sent its ambassador to the talks.
Once close allies, relations between Israel and Turkey are close to the breaking point. Ankara has recalled its ambassador, cancelled joint military exercises and said trade and defence deals worth billions of dollars will be reduced to “a minimum.”
Ties between the two U.S. friends in the volatile region have been on a downward spiral since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan began championing the Palestinian cause after an Israeli offensive in Gaza in December 2008.
Erdogan has said Israel will have to pay for killing Turks in the botched commando raid on a Turkish flagged ship in international waters.
Until recently, NATO member Turkey had largely avoided getting embroiled in conflicts in its eastern backyard as it pursued its goal of joining the European Union.
But Erdogan’s willingness to confront Israel and his championing of the Palestinian cause has turned him into a hero in the Middle East -- with his name invoked at rallies and babies named in his honour.
All CICA members except Israel also called for an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied in 1967, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem on the basis of UN resolutions, Gul said.
CICA has been a low-key forum until now, but the timing of the Istanbul conference and the list of attendees transformed it into a platform for countries to launch verbal attacks against Israel and issue pledges of Muslim brotherhood.
Syria’s Assad, whose country is not a CICA member but was attending as a guest, said “Turkish blood is not different from Arab blood”, while Ahmadinejad accused Israel of going beyond “all boundaries in its disrespect for humanity”.
Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member and a candidate to join the European Union, has sought to raise its international profile in recent years, mediating on issues ranging from ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Its members include: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Palestine, Republic of Korea, Russia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan.
On Wednesday, Arab League foreign ministers are due to meet in Istanbul for talks with their Turkish counterpart.
(Additional reporting by Jon Hemming in Istanbul; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; editing by Noah Barkin)