By Namik Tan
Saturday, June 5, 2010; A13
On May 31, we awoke to tragic news from international waters in the eastern Mediterranean. As we now know well, instead of the day ending with the delivery of humanitarian aid to ease the desperate lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, it began with the killing by Israel Defense Forces of nine peace activists and the wounding of about 30, all civilians.
The Free Gaza flotilla was not an initiative by the Turkish government. It was an international aid convoy made up of nationals of 32 countries taking food, toys, medical equipment and similar aid to the people of Gaza, who have been deprived of these basic commodities for years. Among the ships' 600 activists were Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, European lawmakers, journalists, business leaders and an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor -- hardly targets who could pose a threat to Israel's well-trained commandos.
Whatever the aid carriers may have chanted in opposition to Israel, this was a humanitarian initiative. In any democratic country, people have freedom of expression so long as they avoid violence.
Because the attack took place in international waters, 72 miles off Israel's coast, it was illegal. Indeed, this was the first such attack against civilian Turkish citizens by a foreign military force in our republic's 87-year history.
That flouting of international law, the loss of life and the inexplicable and protracted detention of the ships' passengers only partially explain why the Turkish public, along with the international community, is so stunned and angry and why the Turkish government immediately withdrew its ambassador to Israel and canceled joint military exercises with that country.
The other reason is that Israel has been Turkey's friend and partner since we became the first Muslim-majority nation to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, which was shortly after its founding. This was not an attack by a sworn enemy but by a friend with which Turkey has worked long and hard to develop constructive strategic and economic collaboration. (I recently served as Turkey's ambassador to Israel, where I took part in those collaborations and where I still have a great many friends.)
The attack shocks Turkey because for so long we have viewed Israel as we viewed ourselves: a redoubt of secularism and democracy in our region, striving hard to protect its own citizens.
The offense is painful, too, because the Turkish people have for centuries been hospitable to Jews. Unlike many nations, the Ottoman Empire welcomed Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Our diplomats risked their lives to save European Jews from the Nazi threat during World War II and brought them to refuge in Turkey. In recent years, Turkey played a critical role as a peace mediator between Syria and Israel, supported Israel's membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and worked tirelessly for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006.
This history cannot and will not prevent us from expressing outrage when injustice arises, even if it is committed by a friend. We cannot avert our eyes when the lives of our citizens -- innocents -- are lost during an illegal assault in defense of a blockade that is unfair, inhumane and unsustainable. We cannot stand idly by when actions threaten to set back efforts to bring peace to such a volatile region.
It will be up to Israel to decide how it reconstitutes its standing as a good bilateral partner and responsible member of the international community.
Israel can start by bringing an end to its blockade on Gaza; by ending its inappropriate and disproportionate police actions toward the Palestinian civilians of that land; and by allowing a prompt, independent, impartial, credible and transparent international investigation into the incident. Moreover, Israel owes an apology to the Turkish nation.
The United States should encourage Israel to become a genuine partner for peace in the Middle East.
The writer is Turkey's ambassador to the United States.