ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel on Wednesday of inflicting damage on Jerusalem’s “Islamic character”, in comments likely to further inflame regional tensions in a dispute over the Al-Aqsa mosque.
The dispute over security at the mosque compound - where Israel installed metal detectors at entry points after two police guards were shot dead this month - has touched off the bloodiest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in years.
Hoping to calm days of unrest, Israel removed the metal detectors from the entrances to the compound and is expected to install advanced CCTV cameras instead, but Palestinians have said the modified measures are still unacceptable.
“Israel is harming Jerusalem’s Islamic character,” said Erdogan, whose roots are in political Islam, at an education conference in Ankara. “Nobody should expect us to remain silent against the double standards in Jerusalem.”
Israel’s foreign ministry responded swiftly with a stern statement denouncing the Turkish government and accusing it of behaving as though the Ottoman Empire still existed.
“It’s absurd that the Turkish government, which occupies Northern Cyprus, brutally represses the Kurdish minority and jails journalists, lectures Israel, the only true democracy in the region,” spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said.
Turkey has troops stationed in Northern Cyprus, is battling armed Kurdish separatists in its southeast region and has jailed large numbers of journalists, academics and others it suspects of having supported an abortive military coup last year.
The Al-Aqsa dispute, like many in the Holy Land, is about much more than security devices, taking in issues of sovereignty, religious freedom, occupation and Palestinian nationalism. Muslims refer to the compound as the Noble Sanctuary while Jews call it the Temple Mount.
Al-Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest sites and a symbol for Palestinians seeking their own state, is built on a compound revered by Jews as the vestige of their two ancient temples. The site lies in East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed to form part of its “eternal, indivisible” capital - a move not recognized internationally.
On Tuesday, Erdogan said he welcomed the removal of metal detectors, but said Israel would pay a price for the security measures, drawing a similarly sharp response from foreign ministry spokesman Nahshon.
“The days of the Ottoman Empire have passed. Jerusalem was, is, and will always be the capital of the Jewish people. In stark contrast to the past, the government in Jerusalem is committed to security, liberty, freedom of worship and respect for the rights of all minorities,” Nahshon said on Tuesday.
The tensions in Jerusalem have kindled protests in Turkey, with Turkish media reporting that some protesters kicked the doors and threw stones at a synagogue in Istanbul. Erdogan earlier called for calm and said attacking places of worship was “a big mistake”.
Last year Israel and Turkey restored ties after a six-year rupture that occurred after Israeli marines stormed an aid ship in 2010 to enforce a naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, killing 10 Turkish activists on board.
The normalization of ties between both countries has been driven by the prospect of lucrative Mediterranean gas deals as well as by mutual concerns about regional security.
Israel was Turkey’s 12th largest export market in 2016, taking nearly $3 billion worth of exports, IMF data showed.
Editing by David Dolan, Raya Jalabi and Gareth Jones