Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 July 2009
Issue No. 954
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

One minefield to another

The Turkish government's attempt to clear mines along its southern and eastern borders triggers nationalist sentiment amid accusations that reclaimed land will be leased to Israelis, writes Gareth Jenkins in Ankara

On Thursday, opposition parties in the Turkish parliament formally applied to the Turkish Constitutional Court for the annulment of a law that would enable foreign companies to lease land along the country's southern and eastern borders free of charge in return for clearing it of landmines. The move follows speculation in the Turkish media that the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) planned to award the contract to companies from Israel.

There are estimated to be nearly 900,000 landlines along Turkey's southern and eastern borders: approximately 600,000 along the border with Syria, 75,000 on the border with Iraq, 190,000 near Iran and 22,000 on the border with Armenia. The landmines no longer serve any military purpose. Around 3,000 Turkish citizens are thought to have been killed in landmine accidents over the last 50 years, with over 7,000 seriously injured. In 2004, Turkey signed the 1997 Ottawa Treaty and undertook to dispose of all of its landmines by 2014, including 2.5 million believed stored by the Turkish military.

Initially, the mine-clearing task was to be given to the Turkish military. However, after several years of studies, the Turkish military concluded that the cost would be too high -- both in terms of the equipment needed and the likely death toll among its conscript soldiers during mine-clearing operations. Earlier this year, the JDP announced plans to put the task out to tender, in expectation that the contract would eventually be awarded to a specialised foreign firm.

Government officials estimated that clearing the mines would take five years at a cost of approximately $500 million. Rather than increase the burden on the state's already overstretched budget, lawmakers decided to allow the successful bidder to lease the reclaimed land free of charge for a period of 44 years following the clearing of the mines. The expectation was that the land bordering Syria could be used for agriculture, integrated into the massive hydropower and irrigation scheme in southeast Turkey known as the Southeast Anatolian Project.

In trying to clear one minefield, the government walked straight into another. Commentators in the Turkish media, including several newspapers and television channels that are close to the JDP, immediately accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of planning to award the mine-clearing contract to Israeli companies. They noted that not only are several leading mine-clearing companies owned by Jews but that Israel was also at the forefront of irrigated agriculture. In a country where anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment is widespread, the result was a public outcry as Erdogan was charged with planning to give away thousands of square kilometres of Turkey to the Israelis.

"Our borders are our honour," declared Canan Aritman, a member of parliament for the nationalist Republican People's Party (RPP). "We can't just give them away to foreigners."

There were also claims that Erdogan was trying to ingratiate himself after infuriating the Israelis at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January this year, when he stormed out of a televised debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres in protest at the brutality of Israel's military assault on Gaza.

Erdogan has reacted angrily, describing his critics as racist and religiously prejudiced and having a fascist mentality. He claimed that the government's plans would provide jobs for local Muslims, rather than foreign Jews. "Money has no religion or race. They will invest here and Ahmet, Mehmet and Ayse will find work, not Yitzhak," he said.

But his critics were unconvinced. "It is very strange for him to characterise opposition to the presence of Israel, which is the main troublemaker in the Middle East, in a critical area like the Turkish-Syrian border, as hostility to foreign capital," commented Hakan Albayrak in the daily Yeni Safak, which is usually unreservedly supportive of the JDP.

"If reacting to Israel is a fascistic act, then he became the leading fascist when he reacted to Israel in Davos," Albayrak added.

There are numerous calls for the mine- clearing tender to be restricted to Turkish- owned companies and for the reclaimed land to be donated to local people, starting with those injured or who lost relatives in landmine accidents.

Nevertheless, when the draft bill -- which retains the possibility of foreign tenders -- was brought before parliament in early June, Erdogan ensured that enough JDP parliamentarians were onboard to vote it into law. What happens next remains unclear. At first sight, there would appear to be nothing in the law that contravenes the Turkish constitution. But the Turkish Constitutional Court often appears to follow its own logic. It is possible that it finds a reason to annul the law. What is undoubted is that until the court issues a ruling the contract cannot be put out to tender.

Whatever the court eventually decides, and despite public outcry over the possibility of leasing land to Israeli companies, merely by forcing Erdogan to justify the law, the Turkish opposition has probably inadvertently repaired some of the damage to Turkish-Israeli relations that was caused by Erdogan's outburst at Davos.

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