CAIRO (Reuters) - Turkey said on Thursday it would escort aid ships to Gaza and would not allow a repetition of last year's Israeli raid that killed nine Turks, setting the stage for a potential naval confrontation with its former ally.
Raising the stakes in Turkey's row with Israel over its refusal to apologize for the killings, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Al Jazeera television that Turkey had taken steps to stop Israel from unilaterally exploiting natural resources in the Mediterranean.
"Turkish warships, in the first place, are authorized to protect our ships that carry humanitarian aid to Gaza," Erdogan said in the interview, broadcast by Al Jazeera with an Arabic translation.
"From now on, we will not let these ships to be attacked by Israel, as what happened with the Freedom Flotilla," Erdogan said.
Referring to Erdogan's comments, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said: "This is a statement well-worth not commenting on."
Relations between Turkey and Israel, two close U.S. allies in the region, have soured since Israeli forces boarded the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara aid ship in May 2010.
Ankara downgraded ties and vowed to boost naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean in the escalating row. Israel says it acted legally against ships that tried to breach its blockade on the Palestinian enclave which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas group.
Israel has said it will enforce the blockade, which it says is needed to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said earlier on Thursday that Israel and Turkey will eventually mend fences rather than become foes, describing their unprecedented dispute over Gaza as "spilled milk."
Noting that an inquiry commissioned by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had vindicated the blockade, Barak predicted that wider Middle East upheaval would help bring Israel back together with its Muslim ex-ally.
"Ultimately this wave will pass. We recognize reality. They recognize reality," Barak told Israel Radio. "We are the two countries that are most important to the West in the region ... I am certain that we can overcome these (disagreements)."
But Erdogan appeared to raise the heat, saying NATO member Turkey has taken steps to patrol the Mediterranean, and vowed to stop the Jewish state from exploiting natural resources in the area.
"You know that Israel has begun to declare that it has the right to act in exclusive economic areas in the Mediterranean," Erdogan said, apparently in reference to Israeli plans to exploit offshore gas reserves found in areas that are also claimed by Lebanon.
"You will see that it will not be the owner of this right, because Turkey, as a guarantor of the Turkish republic of north Cyprus, has taken steps in the area, and it will be decisive and holding fast to the right to monitor international waters in the east Mediterranean," he said.
Turkey says oil deals granted by the Greek Cypriot government, which represents the island in the European Union, are illegal as the borders of Cyprus remain undetermined while Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots pursue reunification talks.
Turkey's plan to flex its naval muscles may fuel Western unease about Turkey's reliability as a NATO partner and its penchant for actions designed to court popularity in the Muslim world.
Asked whether Israel might yet say sorry for the seizure of the Turkish vessel, Barak said: "Look, it's spilled milk. It's not important right now."
In addition to an apology, NATO-member Turkey has demanded that Israel end the Gaza blockade. Israel says the closure is needed to keep arms from reaching Palestinian guerrillas by sea.
"A normalisation or improvement in Turkey-Israel relationships shouldn't be expected unless they apologize, pay a compensation and lift an embargo on Gaza," Erdogan said on Thursday.
(Reporting by Omar Fahmy; Aditional reporting Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)