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ISRAEL: The Gaza effect on sports, diplomacy

January 9, 2009 |  3:46 pm

Gazabasketball

This week, Turkish sports fans and angered citizens took their fury over Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip to the basketball court.

Thousands protested in Ankara, the capital, outside an arena where visiting the Israeli basketball team, Bnei Hasharon, was warming up to play Turk Telekom.

Indoors, the mood was red-hot with crowds chanting slogans against Israel and supporting Hamas.

Although police were present, things didn't cool down, and when fans threatened to charge the court, the Israeli team retreated and took cover in the locker rooms for three hours before being safely extricated.

At 3 a.m., the team was escorted by armed policemen from its hotel to the airport, where police continued to chaperon the players until boarding. Upon returning to Israel, the team said that the general mood had been less than friendly from the start, but that protesters in the arena had "murder in their eyes" and that they feared for their lives. They called the event "a Turkish nightmare." The Union of European Leagues of Basketball intends to penalize the Israeli team with a technical loss for refusing to play after the mess had been contained.

Late December, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Turkey, where he met with counterpart Tayyip Erdogan for talks on the indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, among other things. Turkey has hosted several rounds of these negotiations before they were recently suspended. Turkey was enraged when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the militant group Hamas in Gaza only a few days later. Olmert "betrayed me and harmed the honor of Turkey," Erdogan was quoted as saying.

Last weekend, Erdogan spoke of Israel with the fierce sermonizing some Israelis said they expected from others but not Turkey; the comments were found "unacceptable."

Erdogan's comments were played repeatedly on Israeli radio this week, prompting some listeners to text in responses saying that, with some of Turkey's policies concerning the Kurds, they were hardly in a position to preach to Israel. Higher up, though, both sides seemed anxious to smooth things over more discretely.

Israel and Turkey cooperate on many levels and share a considerable range of interests. Despite heightened rhetoric in light of the situation in Gaza, Turkey keeps an interest in cease-fire mediation efforts and is reported to consider contributing soldiers to a multinational force, should one prove to be the solution for Gaza. Still, The Haaretz newspaper said Thursday that the Gaza operation had put an end to Israel's honeymoon with Turkey.

Meanwhile, another basketball match never happened when the Greek team Larissa backed out of a game in Jerusalem this week. Police have also instructed the Israeli soccer association to cancel all matches planned in Arab communities over the weekend to prevent events from turning into protests and unrest. Since the Gaza operation began, tens of thousands of Israel's Arab citizens have protested in a series of big demonstrations.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Riot police and a group of protesters scuffle during a basketball game between Turkey's Turk Telekom and Israel's Bnei Hasharonthe in Ankara on January 6, 2009. The basketball game was suspended after Turkish fans erupted in protests against the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. Credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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