Agence France Presse (AFP)
February 2, 2009 - 1:00am

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood firm Friday of his criticism of Israel's war against the Gaza Strip, in which more than 400 children were killed. Erdogan received a hero's welcome on his return to Istanbul and the Palestinian Hamas movement hailed his "courageous stand" after he walked out of a debate on the Gaza war at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

"We will never allow anyone to show disrespect to the prime minister of Turkey," Erdogan told a cheering crowd as he returned home following his clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

He slammed the hundreds of civilian deaths in Hamas-ruled Gaza during Israel's recent 22-day offensive, and said his anger was directed not at Jews, rather at "the practices of the Israeli government.

"The death of civilians cannot be seen as a simple work accident," Erdogan said.

In Ankara, Israeli Ambassador Gaby Levy sought to play down the incident, saying he is confident relations between the two "closest and ... friendliest countries" will recover "within a period of time."

Turkey and Israel have overcome other spats in the past because their ties "are solidly based ... on strategic interests," Levy told reporters. "It is in the interest of both countries to start trying to calm down and move forward," he added.

The influential Turkish military, which has a series of cooperation accords with the Israeli military, stressed "national interests" in signaling that close relations would continue.

Erdogan said Turkey is determined to pursue peace efforts in the Middle East, while officials announced that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will visit Ankara next week to discuss "all aspects of the Palestinian problem, including efforts to secure unity among Palestinian groups."

Before he marched off the stage in front of Peres and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Erdogan said Israel committed "barbarian" acts in Gaza, lashed out at the audience for applauding Peres' defense of the war and vowed he would never return to Davos.

Erdogan's gesture made headlines across Europe and the Middle East, although a spokesman said his move was directed not at Peres but at the moderator of the debate, who interrupted his speech.

Turkey is one of Israel's rare allies in the Muslim world but Erdogan has been a fierce critic of the Jewish state's military onslaught on Gaza that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. Several human rights groups have accused Israel of war crimes in its offensive, including the shelling of a UN school were families were taking refuge that killed 44 civilians.

Peres defended the offensive, saying Israel had no other choice to stop Hamas rocket attacks after having shattered a five-month-old truce with the Islamists that had brought months of calm in and around Gaza with a bloody November 4 invasion of the territory.

"Hamas pays tribute to the courageous stand of Turkey's prime minister ... who in Davos directly defended the victims of the criminal Zionist war against our children and women in Gaza," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Friday. "We consider his departure from the room an expression of support for the victims of the holocaust carried out by the Zionists," he said in a statement.

Senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya also showered Erdogan with praise and compared him to Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople, in 1453, bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire.

"From Gaza the victorious, we stand at your side and alongside Turkey," he said. "You remind us of the glorious position of our Ottoman ancestors," Hayya told a rally in Gaza City, during his first public appearance since the end of Israel's offensive on Gaza.

"Yesterday, you rose up in the esteem of all free [persons] in this world," wrote Lebanon's speaker, Nabih Berri, in a letter to Erdogan.

Despite the hero's welcome from his supporters, some members of the Turkish opposition - dominated by members of the secular elite - harshly criticized Erdogan's actions at Davos. - AFP, with The Daily Star


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