Turkish Student Village May Herald Thaw in Ties With Israel

Turkish, IDF officials attend ceremony to inaugurate village built from 130 prefabricated cabins supplied by Israel as humanitarian aid in wake of 2011 earthquake in Van province.

A small event on Monday in eastern Turkey, less than an hour's drive from the Iranian border, signaled a lull in the hostility that has been characterizing Israel-Turkey relations for over three years.

Three months after the devastating earthquake in the province of Van which killed over 600 people and left tens of thousands homeless, representatives of Israel's Defense Ministry joined senior officials in the province to inaugurate a student village, built from 130 prefabricated cabins that were supplied by Israel as humanitarian aid in the wake of the earthquake.

Workers at Ben-Gurion Airport loading a jumbo jet with supplies for Turkey - Hadar Cohen
Hadar Cohen

The Ankara government had originally refused Israel's offers of aid, immediately following the 7.2 magnitude quake. This was interpreted by many in Israel as yet another direct snub by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but it was actually an exhibition of Turkish national pride, as the government turned down offers of assistance from other countries as well. The trauma of the 1999 Izmit earthquake that killed tens of thousands and left Turkey helpless had not been forgotten, and the Turks were eager to prove to themselves and the world that they had evolved since then. Indeed, the response of rescue teams from around the country was impressive and within 24 hours thousands of search and rescue workers had arrived in the distant province.

But once the immediate rescue operations were carried out, Turkey was faced with the mammoth task of preparing alternative housing for tens of thousands of citizens facing a bitter winter outdoors. The international aid policy was reversed and shipments of Israeli prefabricated cabins were dispatched.

This did not signal a total change in the official Turkish policy regarding Israel, the senior diplomats have yet to return to the embassies in Ankara and Tel-Aviv, Hamas leaders are still honored guests and Turkey is still trying to prevent Israeli participation in NATO exercises, but as one senior defense official said this week, "The fact that the anti-Israel rhetoric is much less voluble and they are not engaged actively right now in trying to cause us harm, is in itself an improvement. The real reason though is not a re-warming in the relationship but the fact that Turkey is much too busy right now monitoring the situation on its border with Syria."

Defense Ministry officials who participated in the ceremony on Monday in Van reported that "the atmosphere was very warm and friendly," and it is hard to believe that such an event would have taken place when relations between the two countries were at rock-bottom last year, following failure to reach an agreement on an apology over the deaths of nine Turkish activists, killed by Israeli naval commandos during the May 2010 raid on the MAVI Marmara ferry en route to Gaza.

On the other hand, the representatives on both sides were relatively low-level, with the Israeli delegation headed by the head of emergency-preparedness at the Defense Ministry greeted by the deputy governor of Van Province. One reason for the relatively low-profile of the ceremony was its proximity to the Iranian border in a period when Israeli representatives are under threat of terror attacks. One defense source said that "this isn't the beginning of spring in Turkey but it may be the end of winter."