Politics Comes to Taksim Square

My wife and I have been visiting Turkey for over a week, staying mostly in Istanbul. Yesterday we visited Taksim square, at the heart of a modernized, upscale section of Istanbul, across the Bosphorous from Sultanhamet, the most famous part of the city where Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Sultanhamet (“Blue”) Mosque, and numerous other sites are located.

This morning Taksim Square is at the heart of an international controversy. Last night, Israeli troops boarded one of the ships attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. That ship was Turkish, and 15 of those on board were killed. Protests erupted outside the Israeli embassy near Taksim Square, and some protesters surged over the fence.

Turkey and Israel have had good diplomatic relations, but these events, as well as Turkey’s involvement in a nuclear-fuel deal with Iran and Brazil, have strained the relationship immeasurably.

Complicating the present crisis are the questions of whether Israel is, according to international law, an “occupying force” in Gaza, where international law permits delivery of humanitarian aid (some ships have been let through during past deliveries), and precisely happened on the ship after Israeli soldiers boarded it.

It’s been enlightening to watch BBC-Europe, as the interviewer grills spokespersons from Israel and the humanitarian group with equal ferocity. He is polite but firm, well informed, and relentless–intolerant of canned answers.

Ironically, we strolled down Isticlal Street, which angles off Taksim Square, yesterday, a wide promenade lined with shops, apartments and embassies. (The Israeli Embassy is in a high-rise nearby). The promenade was the picture of serenity, as Turks and visitors from every part of the globe enjoyed the stroll. We counted 5 Starbucks cafes along the promenade–as well as the same number of Gloria Jean’s Coffee storefronts: two franchises in peaceful conflict. In an instant, Taksim Square, the venerable Isticlal Street, and embassy row have been drawn into international political conflict.

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