British prime minister David Cameron, who has often described himself as a "friend of Israel," harshly criticized Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, telling a group of Turkish businessmen in Ankara that the strip was "a prison camp."
"The situation in Gaza has to change," he said. "Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp."
While Cameron has made similar remarks in the past, in the House of Commons, the prime minister's decision to repeat them in Turkey - whose relations with Israel have severely deteriorated recently - gave them a more prominent significance.
Cameron's remarks, made on his first official visit to that country, were sure to endear him to his Turkish hosts – but managed to both surprise and anger Israel.
The Israeli embassy in the U.K. issued a response to Cameron's remarks, saying that "the people of Gaza are the prisoners of the terrorist organization Hamas. The situation in Gaza is the direct result of Hamas’ rule and priorities."
"We know that the Prime Minister would also share our grave concerns about our own prisoner in the Gaza Strip, Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage there for over four years, without receiving a single Red Cross visit,” the statement continued.
Cameron did not mention Shalit in his speech. However, he did mention the events of May 31, when Israeli commandos boarded a Gaza-bound aid ship and clashed with Turkish activists in a confrontation that resulted in the deaths of 9 activists. Cameron said the incident was "completely unacceptable."
The British prime minister called for a speedy and transparent Israeli inquiry into the incident, but stopped just short of calling for an international probe.
In a later press conference with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, further criticism was heaped on Israel, this time by Erdogan. The Turkish prime minister called Israel’s reaction to the incident aboard the Turkish boat an act of “piracy,” and compared Israelis to Somali pirates.
"The pirates are there in Somalia [but] when a similar situation occurs here ... political leaders, who are there to establish a fair life for everyone – they should not remain silent," he said.
Israel was not the only ally of Britain taken aback by the content of Cameron's speech in Turkey, as the prime minister went on to encourage the European Union to accept Turkey’s membership bid to the group – a move opposed by France and Germany.
Cameron said he was angered by the slow pace of the accession talks, and warned against shutting Ankara out because of anti-Muslim prejudice.
"When I think about what Turkey has done to defend Europe as a NATO ally and what Turkey is doing now in Afghanistan alongside European allies, it makes me angry that your progress towards EU membership can be frustrated in the way it has been," Cameron told the businessmen. "I believe it's just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent."
The prime minister further argued in his speech that a close alliance with Turkey was especially critical now, in light of the new EU sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program. "We need Turkey's help in making it clear to Iran just how serious we are about engaging fully with the international community,” he said.
Just last month Turkey voted against fresh UN sanctions on Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in 2005, but has so far begun looking at 13 of the 35 policy areas, called chapters, that a candidate country has to successfully negotiate prior to membership, with matters such as Turkey's refusal to open its sea and air ports to Cyprus holding it back. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have suggested that Turkey be offered a "privileged partnership" rather than full membership - a proposal that Ankara categorically rejects.
"We know what it’s like to be shut out of the club," Cameron told the Turks, referencing General Charles de Gaulle's description of the U.K. before vetoing its EU accession. “But we also know that these things can change."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now