Israeli link holding up Turkey's landmine clean-up bill
After ratifying the Ottawa Treaty ban on anti-personnel landmines in 2003, Turkey has until 2014 to clear its border territories of mines.Ankara -- Turkey's plan to rid its border area with Syria of landmines faces stiff political opposition over concerns that an Israeli company stands to lease the land for four decades after clearing it of mines.
For two weeks a parliamentary debate has been raging over the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) proposal for clearing mines along the 510-kilometre (316-mile) frontier.
After ratifying the Ottawa Treaty ban on anti-personnel landmines in 2003, Turkey has until 2014 to clear its border territories of mines.
Deputies have approved four sections of the government's bill but a number are holding up the last two parts by not attending the parliamentary sessions.
Their opposition centres on a clause which would allow the chosen mine-clearing company to rent the territory, turning into agricultural land, for up to 44 years.
Two unnamed Israeli companies are said to be strong contenders to win the contract, while the Turkish military says NATO's Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) should be considered as a primary choice.
The country's Council of State, the supreme arbitration body, quashed a government decree issued a few years ago to award the contract to an Israeli mine-clearing company without inviting others to tender.
The opposition accuses the government of planning to "sell" an area of Turkey, covering 176 square kilometres according to Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul, to foreign companies.
Other critics fear how Syria, which Turkey has been enjoying better ties with in recent years, will respond to an Israeli company working along its border and then managing the land for four decades.
"You will create a second Gaza," Hakki Suha Okay, the deputy head of the main opposition CHP party, warned in parliament.
President Abdullah Gul Tuesday insisted that Turkey's capabilities were inadequate to complete such a large mine-clearing operation by 2014 and while encouraging debate on the draft law, warned against "taking the issue to extreme points."
"How can the parliament, the government ... say 'yes' to something which is against national interests?" he said. "It should not be forgotten that Turkey will earn a large swathe of land, which is among its most virginal soils."
Experts say the territory, untouched for decades, constitutes a precious terrain for agriculture, particularly for organic farming.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also tried to quell the criticism, saying Turkey stands to gain from the contract.
"It is easy to say 'you are selling our land to Israel', but do not forget that it is Turkish people who will be working for the company responsible for the project," he said at the weekend.
Erdogan leads one of the few Muslim countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel but is not averse to criticising the Jewish state.
In January, he stormed out of a heated debate on Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, saying Israel had carried out "barbaric" actions.
However he seems to be opting for realpolitik in this case as his Islamist-rooted ruling party grapples with the global financial crisis.
The Turkish-Syrian border is riddled with some 615,000 landmines, planted since the 1950s to prevent first smugglers and then Kurdish rebels from crossing.
According to Turkey's army, clearing the mines would cost tens of millions of dollars (euros), with many of them having shifted position over the years due to ground movement and flooding.
Parliament could pass the mine-clearing bill this week, before it is sent to President Gul for approval.