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Israeli tourists released from Turkish prison

Two Israeli tourists held for eight days in Turkey have returned home in a private jet today and Israel’s president called Turkey's to thank him personally.
GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

President Isaac Herzog called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today, thanking him for enabling Natali and Mordi Oknin to return to Israel. According to a statement from his office, Herzog thanked Erdogan "for his personal involvement and contribution" to securing the release of the Oknins. The statement said that in their conversation, Erdogan “emphasized the importance that he attaches to relations with Israel, which he said were of key importance to the peace, stability and security of the Middle East.” The statement also noted that Herzog welcomes a comprehensive dialogue between Israel and Turkey on bilateral and regional issues.

The Israeli couple was freed this morning after eight days of detention in Istanbul for suspected espionage. They were arrested Nov. 9 after taking photos of the president’s palace while visiting the Camlica Tower. A staff member saw them taking pictures of the palace and called the police, who came to the venue and arrested them and a Turkish friend who accompanied them. They were held separately and their lawyer and representatives of the Israeli Consulate were authorized to see them only after several days of detention.

Since the arrest, Israel worked in several diplomatic channels to secure their release, emphasizing that the couple, both bus drivers, were no spies. They had taken the pictures of the presidential palace without knowing that doing so was forbidden by Turkish law. Publications in the Turkish press criticized the authorities for arresting the tourists over taking pictures in Istanbul.

When the Turkish authorities agreed to release them, Israel sent a private jet to bring them home. The operation was kept secret until they landed at Ben Gurion Airport. Speaking at a press conference outside the family’s home in the city of Modiin, Natali Oknin said, “We want to thank all the people of Israel who supported our country and family. Thank you to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog. We were jailed for eight days and nights. Our own private Hanukkah miracle occurred and today we returned home to our family and to our children. … Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You went above and beyond for us. You turned the world upside down and you stood by our side.”

Natali added, “We are both Egged drivers. We are proud of our work. I love my passengers and want to get back to work already. I want to get back to bus line 83, to all my passengers who know me and support me.”

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