(Bloomberg) -- Diplomatic pressure on Israel mounted following its bloodiest confrontation with the Palestinians since a 2014 war, with Turkey expelling the Israeli ambassador and criticism in European capitals spreading even as the violence ebbed.
Ambassador Eitan Na’eh was ordered to leave “for a while,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said, a day after Ankara recalled its envoy from Israel. Hours later, the Turkish consul in Jerusalem, Husnu Gurcan Turkoglu, was also sent home by Israel. The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, meanwhile, called a May 18 meeting in Istanbul to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations in Gaza.
Belgium and Ireland summoned Israel’s envoy to protest the killing of 60 Palestinians and wounding of hundreds of others on Monday. France called the Israeli military response “unacceptable” and the U.K. termed it “shocking.”
Tens of thousands of Gazans -- some of them violent -- had converged on the border. But critics said the Israeli military, which reported no serious casualties, used excessive force in response to militants confronting the army or pushing people to charge at Israel’s security fence.
‘Saving Human Lives’
While the deaths of Palestinian protesters were unfortunate, it likely headed off greater bloodshed that may have occurred on both sides if there had been a breach in the border fence, Israeli Consul General Dani Dayan told reporters Tuesday in New York.
"We will defend our border and we will defend our population," Dayan said. "By doing what we do we are saving human lives."
International criticism of Israel’s response followed back-to-back diplomatic victories it’s scored in recent days. Last week U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to block. On Monday, the bloodiest day in Gaza in years took place as Israel celebrated another coup -- Washington’s relocation of its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
While Israel saw the transfer as an important symbol of its sovereignty over the city, for the Palestinians, it undermined their own claim to Jerusalem’s Israeli-occupied east. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told his representative to the U.S., Hussam Zomlot, to return to Ramallah in response to the U.S. embassy’s opening, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in an emailed statement.
Israel says at least 24 of the dead were militants, most affiliated with the Hamas group that rules Gaza. Gaza’s Hamas-run Interior Ministry said 10 were members of the group.
Tuesday was to have been the climax of six weeks of protests in Gaza meant to dramatize their refugee status on the day Palestinians mark the “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” of their displacement by Israel’s 1948 creation. But the number of Palestinians venturing to the border with Israel dropped to about 4,000, according to the Israeli army. Two Palestinians were shot dead, the Gaza health ministry said. Clashes also took place across the West Bank.
The army held a briefing on Tuesday to explain its version of events, saying that in one case, as many as 10 Hamas militants were shot trying to ambush soldiers with guns and grenades. The military brought in snipers from elite forces, an army official said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The White House defended Israel on Monday, calling the Gaza protests a “gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt” and said responsibility for the deaths “rests squarely with Hamas.” In Europe, where criticism of Israel has run deeper, reactions were harsh.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Israel’s need for security doesn’t justify the “unacceptable violence” used by Israeli forces, while U.K. Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt called the violence “shocking” and said “the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced concern about the Gaza violence in a phone call with Netanyahu, while expressing understanding for Israel’s security needs. South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations late Monday.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu scoffed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s branding of the killings as a “genocide.”
“Erdogan is among the biggest supporters of Hamas, and therefore no doubt understands terrorism and massacres well,” he said in a text message.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.