A leaked UN report has laid the blame for the nine deaths following an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla on both Tel Aviv and the activists, increasing tension between the two countries.
Nine activists were killed aboard the Mavi Marmara
Turkey has expelled the Israeli ambassador to Ankara and suspended all military ties to the Jewish state after a United Nations report into a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last year found both sides were to blame.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Saturday said he hoped Israel and Turkey could improve relations, saying the two countries were key to increased stability in the Middle East.
"I sincerely hope that Israel and Turkey will improve their relationship," Ban told reporters. "Both countries are very important countries in the region and their improving relationship, normal relationship, will be very important in addressing all the situations in the Middle East, including the Middle East peace process."
The UN report said the May 2010 Israeli naval blockade of the Palestinian territory was legal, but added that Israel acted with unreasonable force in preventing the aid vessels from entering Israeli waters.
The blockade and flotilla incident led to a protracted diplomatic standoff between Israel and Turkey. Now, the report looks to have exacerbated that situation.
"At this point the measures we are taking are: The relations between Turkey and Israel will be downgraded to second secretary level. All officials over the level of second secretary, primarily the ambassador, will turn back to their country at the latest on Wednesday," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a press conference Friday.
Davutoglu had earlier commented that as long as Israel refused to apologize over the flotilla raid, pay compensation and ease the Gaza blockade then the standoff would continue.
Both sides to blame: UN
International concern was sparked when Israeli commandos boarded six aid ships bound for Gaza, a flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Movement and Turkish rights activists with the intent of breaking the Israeli blockade. Clashes broke out on the fleet's largest vessel, the Mavi Marmara, resulting in the deaths of nine activists.
Many activists were detained following the Israeli raid
Eight of those killed were Turkish nationals, and the ninth was Turkish-American. The UN report said the loss of life was "unacceptable," but that Israeli commandos had faced "organized and violent resistance" in the incident.
The flotilla "acted recklessly" in trying to breach the blockade and there were "serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives" of the organizers, the 105-page document added.
But in criticism of Tel Aviv, it said "Israel's decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable."
The UN report was intended for release Friday but was published by the New York Times on Thursday after a copy was obtained by the newspaper.
The document also found that Israel's blockade of Gaza, which is under control of the anti-Israel Islamist group Hamas, "was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law."
Israel calls its Gaza blockade a precaution against arms reaching Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas. Palestinians and their supporters say the blockade is illegal collective punishment.
Hamas on Friday praised Turkey for the diplomatic move.
"[The] Hamas movement welcomes the Turkish step and the dismissal of the Israel ambassador in Turkey and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli crime committed against the Freedom flotilla and the occupation's insistence to continue its blockade on Gaza," said a spokesman for the militant group.
Israel said it accepted the findings of the UN report with reservations and still hoped to repair its relations with Turkey. However, it also reiterated there would be no apology.
One senior Israeli official expressed some satisfaction at the findings of the report.
"The bottom line is that the Israeli actions were legal," he told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
Author: Darren Mara, Chuck Penfold (Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler