ISTANBUL Turkey on Tuesday opened the trial in absentia of former Israeli military commanders charged over the 2010 killings of nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship.
The proceedings against four of Israel's most senior retired commanders, including the ex-head of the army, has been dismissed by Israel as a politically motivated "show trial" and threatens to further strain already fraught relations.
Israeli marines stormed the Mavi Marmara aid ship in May 2010 to enforce a naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip. Nine Turks were killed in clashes on board.
Hundreds of protesters chanting "Murderer Israel!" gathered outside the Istanbul court on Tuesday as witnesses and relatives of those killed in the raid began to arrive.
"Murderer Israel, get out of Palestine!" the crowd chanted as others held up a banner with the words: "What is the difference? Hitler = Israel".
Inside the courtroom, the presiding judge began hearing testimony from those who were aboard the aid flotilla during the 2010 raid and from relatives of the dead. Some 500 people are expected to give evidence.
Dressed in black Islamic head-to-toe covering, Nimet Akyuz, the wife of one of the activists killed on the Mavi Marmara, broke down as she described the moment she learned her husband was dead. Others wept as she spoke.
"I was at home with my daughters when I found out my husband had died. We know they will never suffer the pain we did, but we want those responsible to be punished," she said.
"We want our voice to be heard and the international community to acknowledge Israel's cruelty."
Ann Wright, a former U.S. colonel who was on one of the smaller ships, described how Israeli troops had boarded their vessel, firing paint bullets and tossing stun grenades.
"One of the reasons I went on the flotilla is that I felt compelled to challenge Israeli policy to impose an illegal blockade on Palestine and the U.S. policy to support Israel's illegal actions," she told the court.
The indictment prepared by a state prosecutor seeks multiple life sentences for the now-retired Israeli officers over their involvement in the nine killings and in the wounding of more than 50 others.
The 144-page indictment names Israel's former Chief-of-Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and three other senior commanders. It lists "inciting murder through cruelty or torture" and "inciting injury with firearms" among the charges.
Israel says the accused have not even been notified of the charges.
"This is not a trial, this is a show trial with a kangaroo court. This is a trial taken right out of a Kafka novel, a grotesque political show that has nothing to do with law and justice," Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Reuters TV.
Israel and NATO member Turkey, which both border Syria, once shared intelligence information and conducted joint military exercises, cooperation which has since been cancelled.
Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador and froze military cooperation after a U.N. report into the 2010 incident released in September last year largely exonerated the Jewish state.
The report deepened the rift when it concluded that Israel had used unreasonable force but that its blockade on Gaza was legal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in July that Israel and Turkey needed to repair their relationship, but attempts to rekindle the strategic alliance have failed.
Turkey has demanded a formal apology, compensation for victims and the families of the dead, and for the Gaza blockade to be lifted.
Israel has voiced "regret", falling short of the full apology demanded, and has offered to pay into what it called a "humanitarian fund" through which casualties and relatives could be compensated.
While the breakdown in ties has produced a sharp drop in the number of Israeli tourists to Turkey, other business has flourished. Bilateral trade increased from more than 3 billion dollars in 2010 to more than 4 billion in 2011, according to Turkish data. Trade for the first nine months of 2012 was around 2.7 billion dollars.
(Additional reporting by Jerusalem Newsroom; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Andrew Roche)