ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped up his belligerent rhetoric against Israel, saying Turkish warships will escort future aid boats leaving its territory for Gaza to prevent a repeat of last year's deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla.
Erdogan's comments to Al-Jazeera television Thursday were the first time Turkey has said its navy will use force to protect ships attempting to break Israel's blockade of the coastal Palestinian territory. Turkey had already announced it would increase navy patrols in the eastern Mediterranean in response to Israel's refusal to apologize for the raid.
Dan Meridor, the Israeli Cabinet minister in charge of intelligence, called Erdogan's threat "grave and serious."
"Turkey, which declares that Israel is not above international law, must understand that it isn't either," he said Friday.
Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara — part of an international flotilla trying to break the blockade, which Israel says it imposed in 2007 to keep militants from bringing weapons into Gaza.
Turkey and Israel have enjoyed close relations that gave Israel a strong defense ally and allowed Turkey to purchase Israeli high-tech military equipment.
But relations declined steadily after 2008 over Israel's war in Gaza, with Erdogan repeatedly attacking Israel for the deaths of Palestinians. Erdogan, whose party has roots in Turkey's Islamic movement, has also adopted a more hardline approach toward Israel after a strong election victory in July gave him a third consecutive term in office.
The rift with Israel comes as Turkey's yearslong bid to join the European Union has all but faltered and the country has forged closer ties with the Arab and Muslim world.
The NATO-member country rejects, however, claims that it is shifting away from the West. Despite the breakdown in relations with Israel, Turkey has recently agreed to host a NATO missile defense system aimed at countering ballistic missile threats from neighboring Iran.
Turkey, which is enjoying growing popularity in the broader Muslim world, also insists it cannot turn a blind eye to Israel's actions.
"At the moment, there is no doubt that the Turkish military ships' primary duty is to protect (Turkish) ships," Turkey's state-run Anatolia quoted Erdogan as telling Al-Jazeera. "We will be making humanitarian aid. This aid will no longer be subjected to any kind of attack as the Mavi Marmara was."
Israel, for its part, said it would not escalate the rhetoric.
"I do not think it would be correct to get into verbal saber rattling with him now," Meridor told Army Radio. "I think that our silence is the best answer, and I hope this will pass."
"I think anyone who is listening can make their own mind up about him and the direction he has chosen," Meridor said Friday.
A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said: "Our policy was and remains to prevent a deterioration of relations with Turkey and ease the tensions between the countries."
Turkey's opposition also criticized Erdogan's comments on Friday. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, said Turkey's Red Crescent was already sending aid to Gaza without breaching the blockade. He called on Erdogan to "justify" in Parliament the threats to send warships to escort aid ships.
A United Nations report into the 2010 Israeli raid, released last week, described the blockade of Gaza as legitimate. It said violent activists on board the Mavi Marmara had attacked raiding Israeli naval commandos, but also accused Israel of using disproportionate force against the activists.
Turkey has rejected the report's findings, saying Israel had no right to raid the ship in international waters and saying Turkey would never recognize the blockade's legitimacy. It is insisting on an Israeli apology as well as compensation for the deaths as a precondition for normalization of a relationship once seen as a cornerstone of regional stability.
Last week, the Turkish government slapped a series of sanctions on Israel — once a top military trading partner — that included expelling senior Israeli diplomats and suspending all military deals. It has also vowed to back the Palestinian bid for recognition of their statehood at the United Nations.
Israel has expressed regret for the loss of lives aboard the flotilla but refused to apologize, saying its forces acted in self-defense. It has also said it was time for the two countries to restore their former close ties.
Matti Friedman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.