British Prime Minister David Cameron went to Turkey this week and engaged in some refreshingly blunt talk about Ankara’s application to join the European Union (which does not appear to be going anywhere fast), and about the strained Turkish-Israel relationship. Cameron slammed France and Germany for putting the brakes on Turkey’s EU membership, which US secretary of defense Bob Gates has blamed for the turn to an eastern policy by Turkey’s present government.
Cameron also said that the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million impoverished Palestinians, cannot be allowed to remain a prison camp. Calling the territory, which Israel has blockaded for several years, a prison camp outrages many Israelis because it seems an implicit comparison of Tel Aviv to the totalitarian governments of the WW II period.
But note that Cameron did not call Gaza a ‘death camp,’ only a big outdoor prison. And that it surely is, since it is not allowed by Israel to export its goods and even after a supposed ‘easing’ of import restrictions by the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, only a fourth as many goods are allowed in today as came in in 2006. One Israeli official said that the Gazans were to be put on a diet.
That is why the Israeli response to Cameron, that the blockade of Gaza is the fault of Hamas, the fundamentalist party that came to power in the 2006 elections, is absurd. What is going on is that Israeli officials are half-starving Gaza children as a political move, to turn Palestinians away from Hamas and to weaken the party. But you cannot blockade civilian populations for political purposes in international law. That is a war crime, and contrary to Israeli assertions, it would be illegal for any other country to cooperate with such a blockade primarily targeting civilians, including of children. If the blockade were solely for military purposes, then why did the Israelis have such a long list of goods that could not be brought in, including chocolate? No, the policy is punitive, not for security, and Cameron is correct in his diction.
Cameron is perfectly clear that he is trying to improve British relations with Turkey, in part because that country is Europe’s fast-growing economy. In 2008 before the crash, Turkey did over $13 billion in trade with the UK. (Turkey’s total external trade is $100 billion, so Britain is a major trading partner. In contrast, in 2007, all of Israeli trade with Europe only came to about $19 bn.). Cameron wants to improve British trade with economies outside the North Atlantic, including India. But it would be wrong to dismiss Cameron’s straight talk as merely a way of buttering up the Turks for the purposes of commerce. He is just saying what virtually all European leaders actually think.
Moreover, Cameron wants to see Turkish relations with Israel return to normal and may be attempting to pave the way by saving Turkish face in this way (Israel has adamantly refused to apologize for its deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara Turkish aid vessel, which left 8 Turkish and one US citizen dead. In fact, it is not clear that they even said they were sorry that the aid workers died.)
Last June, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu likened the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla to Somali piracy. It may be a while before the two countries have the kind of relationship again that would allow Turkey to play broker between the Palestine Authority and Israel.