Israel said Saturday it was recalling its diplomatic staff from Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a fierce attack on its military operation against Hamas militants in Gaza.
The decision delivered a body blow to the sides’ nascent efforts to restore political and economic relations after a decade of all but frozen ties.
Israel and Turkey — an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that forms the bulwark of NATO defenses on the edge of the Middle East — had only just agreed to reappoint ambassadors last year.
They were also restarting discussions on a US-backed natural gas pipeline project that could have formed the basis for much closer and more lasting cooperation in the coming years.
But their relations have unraveled as Erdogan picks up the pace and venom of his attacks on Israel’s retaliatory military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas militants staged a surprise attack on October 7 during which they killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and seized more than 220 hostages.
The health ministry in Gaza has said Israeli strikes have killed 7,703 people — mainly civilians — with more than 3,500 of them children.
Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party staged a massive rally in Istanbul on Saturday that the president said drew an estimated a crowd of 1.5 million people.
“Israel, you are an occupier,” he told the Turkish and Palestinian-flag waving sea of supporters.
He accused the Israel government of behaving like a “war criminal” and trying to “eradicate” Palestinians.
“Of course, every country has the right to defend itself. But where is the justice in this case? There is no justice — just a vicious massacre happening in Gaza.”
Israeli ordered the return of all diplomatic staff from Turkey moments after Erdogan finished his remarks.
“Given the grave statements coming from Turkey, I have ordered the return of diplomatic representatives there in order to conduct a reevaluation of the relations between Israel and Turkey,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in a statement.
Erdogan has been a leading international supporter of Palestinian rights during his two-decade rule.
He took a more cautious line in the first days after the October 7 attack by Hamas, but has become much more vocal as the reported death toll from Israel’s military response has grown.
Erdogan told Saturday’s rally that Israel was “a pawn in the region” that was being used by Western powers to stamp their authority on the Middle East.
“The main culprit behind the massacre unfolding in Gaza is the West,” Erdogan declared.
“If we leave aside some conscientious voices … the massacre in Gaza is entirely the work of the West.”
And he accused Israel’s allies of creating a “crusade war atmosphere” pitting Christians against Muslims.
“Listen to our call for dialogue,” Erdogan said. “No one loses from a just peace.”
Erdogan’s address came in response to days of pro-Palestinian protests in Istanbul and other major cities organized by Turkey’s more right-wing and Islamic conservative groups.
But one poll released this week showed the majority of respondents preferring to see Turkey remain either neutral or try to play a mediating role in the war.
The Metropoll survey showed 11.3 percent of the respondents saying they “back Hamas.”
But 34.5 percent said Turkey should stay “neutral” and 26.4 percent said it should mediate.
Just 3.0 percent said they “support Israel.”