Amid tensions, Turkey and Israel play ball

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AP — Thousands of Turkish fans booed Maccabi Tel Aviv players as they went on the pitch to warm up ahead of their Europa League game against Besiktas on Thursday, prompting Turkish officials to start playing loud music to drown out the noise.

Security was tight at Besiktas’ Inonu stadium in Istanbul amid tensions with Israel over its refusal to apologize for a raid on a Gaza-bound ship last year that killed nine Turkish activists. More than 2,000 policemen were deployed in and around the stadium, NTV television said.

About a dozen Israeli fans were seen inside a stand protected by netting all around to shield them from possible projectiles. Some Turkish fans shouted obscenities about Israel but the match ended without any incident as Besiktas trounced Maccabi 5-1.

“Martyrs don’t die,” Turkish fans frequently shouted in reference to the Turkish victims during the game. They also shouted: “Down with Israel!” at one point.

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists carrying Palestinian flags protested against the Israeli team before the politically charged match. The protesters also burned an Israeli flag and chanted “God is Great.”

The Israeli armed forces have authorized Maccabi players currently carrying out their military service to travel to Istanbul for the game, Maccabi said. There had been reports those players would not be allowed to travel to Turkey for security reasons.

One pro-Islamic female demonstrator, who refused to give their names,said: “There are soldiers, Israeli soldiers on that team.”

At least one Turkish fan was seen waving the Palestinian flag in the stands as well.

The match was an easy victory for the home side, with Hugo Almeida lobbing a long ball over Maccabi goalkeeper Guy Haimov to open the scoring in the third minute. He scored again in the 28th minute folloiwng a perfect pass from Ricardo Quaresma.

Maccabi’s Roi Kehat pulled a goal back in the 48th, but Maccabi’s hopes of levelling the game disappeared following Mehmet Aurelio’s header just two minutes later. Egemen Korkmaz added the fourth goal with a diving header in the 53rd and Brazilian forward Edu completed the rout in the 88th minute.

Off the pitch, the tension reflected the fact that Turkey recently expelled top Israeli diplomats, cut military ties with the country and vowed to send navy vessels to escort aid ships in the future.

Israel stands by its raid on the flotilla, saying its troops were defending themselves against activists who attacked them as they boarded.

Yair Asher of Flying Carpet, an Israeli travel company, said earlier Thursday that dozens of fans who arrived in Istanbul have been advised to blend in and not wear the yellow T-shirts of the Israeli team.

Turkey assured Maccabi and Israeli fans of their safety, rejecting calls for the game to be played at a neutral venue.

Turkey is keen to avoid a repeat of a European Cup basketball game between Bnei Hasharon and Turk Telekom in Ankara in 2009, when the Israeli team was forced to flee to the locker room as hundreds of fist-pumping and chanting Turkish fans pelted them with bottles, protesting an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza. The game was postponed because the Israeli team did not return to the court.

Besiktas on Wednesday warned its supporters that the club could face punishment by UEFA for any unruly fan behaviour.

Turkish-Israeli relations hit a new low earlier this month when a U.N. report into the Israeli raid said the country’s naval blockade of Gaza was a “legitimate security measure,” but also called the raid on the flotilla that tried to break the blockade “excessive and unreasonable.”

Turkey rejected the report, saying it does not recognize the blockade’s legitimacy. It said ties with Israel would not return to their normal level until Israel apologizes, compensates the victims’ families and lifts the blockade of Gaza.

Last week, Israel expressed regret for the loss of lives and said it was time for the two countries to restore their former ties.

Turkey also took strict security measures during last year’s European Volleyball League tournament and closed a game between Turkey and Israel to the public. A small group of protesters were stopped by police two blocks away from the venue as they voiced anger over Israel’s May 31 raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Before another volleyball match between Israel and Serbia during the tournament in July, protesters scuffled with police, pounding police shields with Palestinian flags.

In previous years, an Egyptian football player assaulted an Israeli player during a league match in Turkey.