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Turkish media now reporting the case more prominently

‘It’s tough but I’m strong’: Woman held in Turkey speaks with family for 1st time

Natali Oknin, who was arrested with her husband Mordy last week for photographing Erdogan’s palace, tells her children and sister, ‘If you’re strong, I’m strong’

The family of Natali and Mordy Oknin speak by phone with Natali on November 17, 2021, for the first time since she and her husband were arrested eight days earlier in Turkey. The couple, both Egged bus drivers, are being held separately and face espionage accusations, which they and the Israeli government firmly deny. (Channel 13 screenshot)
The family of Natali and Mordy Oknin speak by phone with Natali on November 17, 2021, for the first time since she and her husband were arrested eight days earlier in Turkey. The couple, both Egged bus drivers, are being held separately and face espionage accusations, which they and the Israeli government firmly deny. (Channel 13 screenshot)

An Israeli woman being held in Turkey along with her husband for suspected espionage after photographing the president’s palace spoke with her family on Wednesday for the first time since she was arrested last week.

Natali Oknin made the phone call from prison in Istanbul to her family in the central city of Modiin. She updated them on her conditions during her imprisonment for the first time, after they had previously only been relayed via her lawyer.

“Be calm and stay strong,” her children told her in a recording of the call released to Israeli media.

“I’m strong. If you’re strong, then I can stay strong,” she replied.

She said she was “being treated well. There’s always a woman near me. If I need to use the bathroom she escorts me.”

“No one has touched me. I bought some things in the commissary. It’s tough, but I’m getting by,” she said, adding that she had not been outside but had a window that looked outdoors.

She had received clothes, underwear, shampoo, conditioner, fresh bread and chocolate spread, she said. One of her daughters sang her the song “Only for Mom” by Eti Bitton at her request.

Mordy Oknin, left, and Natali Oknin, right. (Courtesy/Facebook)

In an emotional exchange, she said she had had frightful dreams and thoughts about her family members while she was in prison.

“Don’t be scared, Mom. Everyone’s alive and okay and waiting for you. We’re never alone, the whole family is here, everyone is helping, taking care of money and finances, everything,” they said. “We’re strong, we’re strong for you, I promise.”

“Don’t lose hope, this will be over soon,” they said. “We’re doing everything to get you out. Everyone is staying strong.”

“I’m strong. I’m, drinking, I’m eating,” said Natali.

Oknin’s children told her about their conversations with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. She praised her children for their efforts to get her released, telling them, “You’re so smart, I’m proud of you.”

Mordy and Natali Oknin were arrested in Istanbul last week after they photographed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palace in Istanbul while on tour and sent the photo to their family. Media reports have said thousands of tourists — including Israelis — regularly take photos of the palace.

The couple is being held separately and has been granted intermittent access to an Israeli lawyer and Israeli consular officials.

Israel has firmly and formally rejected the allegation that the Oknins, both of whom are bus drivers for the Egged company, are spies.

Their supervisor at Egged, Asher Biton, told Channel 12 Wednesday he thought it was a prank when he heard of their arrest, because the notion of them being accused of spying was so absurd.

Bennett spoke with the couple’s relatives on Wednesday, and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said that it was “clear to all” that there was no reason for Turkish authorities to arrest the couple.

Screen capture from video of Mordy Oknin, left, and his wife Natali, right, with an unidentified Turkish man, on a street in Istanbul, November 2021. (Channel 12 news)

In addition to its own diplomatic efforts, Israel has enlisted the help of a third country in its attempts to free the couple, the Haaretz newspaper reported. The third country was working to pressure Turkey’s leaders to free the Oknins.

In the first public comment by a top Turkish official on the affair, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed on Tuesday that the Oknins had “focused” on Erdogan’s residence while photographing it and “marked it.”

He told reporters that prosecutors believe the Israelis committed “what can be called diplomatic and military espionage,” but that “the court will decide.”

Some Israeli analysts see Soylu’s remarks as showing a worrying increase in the weight given to the case in Turkey, complicating diplomatic efforts for a resolution that Israel had hoped to keep low-key and behind the scenes. Soylu is the No. 2 in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, making him a candidate to succeed the long-serving Turkish president.

In addition, Soylu’s reference to the courts is a concern as it may indicate that a diplomatic resolution won’t be permitted. The sometimes slow movement of the Turkish court system could also condemn the Oknins to an extended period of detention before there are any developments, the Ynet news site assessed.

Turkish media on Wednesday included widespread coverage of the case. The local media had previously only mentioned the arrests, in what was seen by Israel as a positive sign, because it would lessen public pressure on Turkish officials to hold the couple or make demands.

Turkey is now seen as raising the stakes, which would require more open high-level diplomacy, including the direct intervention of President Isaac Herzog, possibly in a phone call with Erdogan.

On Wednesday morning, Turkish media reported the identity of a local man who was also arrested with the Oknins and was apparently their tour guide. According to those reports, the man learned Hebrew from his former wife, who is Jewish.

The delicate diplomacy is further complicated because the two governments do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries due to longstanding tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem.

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