The seven-day detention of an Israeli tourist couple accused of photographing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Istanbul home has threatened to escalate tensions between Israel and Turkey. The tourists were released on Thursday and arrived at Tel Aviv airport at dawn after intense diplomatic negotiations to defuse the crisis. The two travelers marriage formed by Mordi and Natali Oknin, They were accused of “military and political espionage” and had been under arrest since last Thursday, after recording footage of one of the residences used by the Turkish president, until a court ruled on Wednesday evening that would be released pending trial. .
Israel and Turkey have been at odds and their relations have been semi-frozen since 2010, following the assault by Israeli naval commandos on a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip, an action during which 10 Turkish militants were killed. Until Islamist Erdogan came to power nearly two decades ago, the two countries were close military allies in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Oknins — middle-aged drivers for Israel’s largest bus company Egged, and residents of Modiin, a suburban town halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — had embarked on a vacation in Istanbul to celebrate a birthday. Tens of thousands of Israelis travel to Turkey each year for tourism or to connect with other international destinations.
On their arrival in Israeli territory aboard a private plane chartered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Natali Oknin and her husband thanked “the whole nation for its help and support in achieving our liberation”. The issue made headlines in Israeli newspapers last week, with stories about the couple’s family denying their membership in spy services.
They were arrested with a Turkish interpreter accompanying them on charges of taking pictures of an Erdogan residence on the Asian side of Istanbul. An employee of the communication tower (369 meters high) on Çamlica Hill, located on the Asian side of Istanbul and one of the promontories that offers the best views of the Bosphorus Strait, informed the police that the couple Israeli that he was taking a photo of in the direction of the presidential residence, and that he had heard a suspicious conversation. The marriage, which was finally arrested for “political and military espionage” and brought to justice, which decreed the continued detention for 20 days.
The president has a private residence in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul, near Çamlica hill. Moreover, there is an official palace on the same Asian side and another on the European side of the Bosphorus. These are just some of the new or renovated buildings that have been converted into residences for the head of state outside Ankara – the capital where he erected a colossal presidential palace – since Erdogan became president in 2014.
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The Israeli government has preferred to keep a low profile in the bilateral crisis and its top officials have insisted that the detainees do not work for any intelligence agency. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who called the Oknin “two innocent civilians who were mistakenly involved in a complex situation”, thanked this Thursday “the cooperation of the Turkish president and his government” in a terse statement. The Hebrew press refers to the mediation of a third country in the crisis, although a diplomatic spokesman ruled out that there was a foreign intermediary intervention. The director of Mossad, Israel’s foreign spy service, contacted that of MIT, Turkey’s central intelligence service, to state that the travelers were not among their agents.
Turkish authorities escalated the crisis on Tuesday, when the interior minister, the ultra-nationalist Süleyman Soylu, claimed that the Oknin “focused” on the photograph of the president’s residence and took it ” marked” as target. “Following the evaluation of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, within the framework of the law and the rule of law, preventive detention was decreed. Our assessment is that this is a case of military and political espionage. It will be the courts that will pronounce the sentence”, added the Turkish minister, who thus seemed to close the way to a negotiated solution through diplomatic channels.
Contrary to the official Turkish version, the Israeli lawyer Nir Yaslovitz, who defended the detainees in Istanbul, assured that “his only crime was to photograph the Dolmabahçe Palace (which was the residence of the Ottoman sultans in the European part of the Bosphorus ) on an innocent boat cruise.Although the historic palace has official offices for the head of state during his stays in Istanbul, it is not included in the list of residences of President Erdogan.
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