Israelis Stranded at Istanbul Airport Recount Coup Confusion: 'Airport Staff Disappeared'

As Israeli passengers await resumption of flights to and from Istanbul, Israeli officials are working to expedite their return.

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A man waves a Turkish flag in front of Ataturk Airport during an attempted coup in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016.
A man waves a Turkish flag in front of Ataturk Airport during an attempted coup in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Israeli Micki Eisenman was waiting to board her connecting flight from Istanbul's Atatürk Airport to Tel Aviv when she heard people shouting that there were tanks outside the airport. She is only one of a number of Israelis who found themselves stranded at the airport in the Turkish capital as the country experienced a failed five-hour military coup.

Emmanuel Nahshon, the spokesperson for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the Israeli government is in close touch with Turkish officials as well as the Israeli embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul, and that as of Saturday morning, there were no reports of missing or injured Israelis in the failed coup that saw hundreds killed. Israel is in talks with Turkish Airlines, he said, to have flights to Israel expedited.

Tel Aviv resident Guy Talmor was on an his way to Bangkok via Turkey when he found himself stuck in Istanbul. He was on the last Israeli flight that landed in Turkey before the coup forced the airport to shut down. "When we landed, we understood something was happening and there was massive confusion," he told Haaretz from the airport.

As people struggled to get to a safe area of the airport, they heard what sounded like rocket fire from outside. "We heard explosions outside the [airport] building. Panic peaked between 1 A.M. and 3 A.M.," he said, adding that most of the flight and ground crews had abandoned the airport.

"For better or worse," he said, Turkish officials had all but ignored those misfortunate enough to be transiting the airport during the botched coup. "For better, because they didn't force us out," and had set up an information center, "but for worse, as we have no idea what to expect. Any optimism we had over the prospect of getting out today [Saturday] has all but dissipated."

For her part, Eisenman had landed at the airport in Istanbul at 10 P.M. Friday on a flight from Edinburgh, Scotland and was scheduled to board a connecting flight to Tel Aviv at 10:45 P.M. She had already managed to present her flight ticket, she said, when someone next to her said he had seen tanks outside. With the spotty internet service that was available, passengers learned that there had been an attempted coup.

"All of the airport staff disappeared. There wasn’t a living soul at the airport," she recounted, claiming that the passengers were essentially left to their own devices and without being told what was happening. Although staff had abandoned the airport shops, passengers didn't descend on the stores to take merchandise, she added.

Sometime between midnight and 1 A.M., she said, people began running through the airport after thinking that they heard shooting. Then local residents began entering the airport from the street, heading to the runways and elsewhere where "there would normally not be people," and around 1:30 A.M., throngs entered the airport carrying Turkish flags.

The situation was not worrying, she added. "It was clear that we were bystanders in this matter," she said, and explaining that from news they were getting from the internet, they later understood that what they were witnessing was a show of force by Erdogan supporters. At one point, however, she said they heard a noise so loud that it rattled the windows. "That was scary," she acknowledged, but most of the time, things were rather calm, she stated.

Eisenman expressed concern about when she would get out of Turkey and when she would see her luggage, but said she was thankful that she went through the experience alone and not with her children.

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