JERUSALEM, Israel - Turkey is strengthening its ties with the Palestinians at a time when its once excellent relations with Israel are still on the rocks.
Turkey plans to open a trade office in the West Bank city of Ramallah to boost its ties with the Palestinian Authority, according to a report in Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
"Our aim is to facilitate cooperation between Palestinian business people and contribute to the development of the Palestinian economy," Dr. Abu Obaidah Hafez, chairman of the Palestinian Business Forum, told conference participants this week in Istanbul.
"Establishing relationship between Palestinian business people, providing cooperation with business people from other countries, giving information about the importance and fields of investment in Jerusalem and supporting Palestinian entrepreneurs are the four major aims of the forum," Hafez said.
Turkish Minister of Trade Zafer Çağlayan, who also spoke at the conference, said a free-trade agreement signed in 2004-2005 allowed "Palestinians to send their duty-free products to Turkey."
Çağlayan also said they are conducting a study to eliminate visa requirements for Palestinian businessmen.
According to Çağlayan, trade volume between the Palestinian Authority and Turkey recently reached $350 million, which has spurred more Turkish companies to invest in the PA.
At the same time, Turkish Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay said Turkey may not send a delegate to the biannual OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) tourism conference in Israel later this month.
"I am not sure if a representative will be sent to the OECD meeting," Günay said, retracting an earlier decision to send Culture and Tourism Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Özgür Özaslan to represent Turkey at the conference, according to Hürriyet.
Turkey has yet to come to terms with the confrontation that took place on May 31 aboard the Turkish-owned flagship Mavi Marmara, which sought to breech the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip.
Nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed in a pre-planned ambush on Israeli navy commandos as they boarded the ship after the captain refused to unload its cargo at the Israeli port of Ashdod instead of Gaza.
Turkey has demanded an apology from Israel, though video clips taken by the IDF show the soldiers resorted to using their handguns to defend their lives.
Following the incident, there was a 90 percent drop in Israeli tourism to Turkey, according to statistics posted on Turkey's Tourism and Culture Ministry's website in August.