Israel denied entry to 90 Turkish tourists on Sunday, with authorities saying the group visa they presented at Ben Gurion Airport was false.
Hadashot TV news cited Turkish officials who said they were told by Israeli authorities that the tourists were denied entry for “security reasons.”
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “According to the Immigration Authority an Israeli (travel) agent forged the group visa. He was notified in advance that he would need to place a deposit for the group, or it wouldn’t be allowed in.
“To bypass the Turkish airline’s ban on passengers without permits, he falsified the group visa.”
The incident was reported upon in Turkish media as a “great humiliation,” Hadashot TV news reported.
The tourists, members of an Islamic sect, were on a visit organized by the Turkey-based Sila Tour company and planned to take in Muslim holy sites, particularly those located in Jerusalem.
— Hürriyet Daily News (@HDNER) July 30, 2018
When the group arrived at Ben Gurion Airport they were told that they could not enter the country.
Mustafa Bickioglu, a representative of the tour company, told Turkey’s official news agency Anadolu that the group had been issued a collective visa by the Israeli consulate in Istanbul.
“Israel does not provide separate visas for each passenger to tour companies that bring tourists to Jerusalem,” he said. “The document issued by the consulate works as a visa for all passengers.”
“We had received a visa letter in Hebrew for our passengers for travel on our Jerusalem tour but our 90 passengers were not allowed to enter Israel for allegedly not having visas.”
Bickioglu said 15 of the passengers were immediately sent back to Istanbul and another 33 departed late in the evening. The remaining tourists were to be sent back on Monday.
The Anadolu Agency report said the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv was following the developments.
Sumeyra Sevgulu Haciibrahimoglu, a 23-year-old masters student who participated in the tour, said that the tourists were separated into groups and questioned by Israeli security officials.
“After questioning some of our friends in the security inquiry room, we were taken to different rooms in groups,” she said.
“Some of the families among us wanted to be in the same room but Israeli police rejected this request,” she noted. “The only dream of the group that consists of mainly young people was to see Jerusalem.”
According to Hadashot, local representatives of Turkish tour operators regularly submit to the Interior Ministry lists of tourists participating in their travel groups for them to be approved entry to Israel. A collective visa is then entered into the passport of the tour leader while the individual participants do not have visas in their travel documents.
The incident comes at a time of high tensions between Israel and Turkey. Relations sank to a fresh low point in May when the countries expelled each other’s envoys amid an acerbic war of words following deadly clashes on the Gaza Strip border.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly made harsh statements against Israel and last week called it the “most fascist, racist state” in the world after Israel’s Knesset passed a new law defining the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people. He added that the new law showed the “spirit of Hitler” was resurgent in Israel’s leadership.
The strains have threatened a 2016 deal on normalizing ties following a crisis sparked by the May 2010 deadly clashes between Israeli commandos and Turkish activists on board a Gaza-bound Turkish ship.
But analysts note that behind the rhetoric economic ties remain strong, with trade robust and both sides interested in the export of Israeli energy resources to Turkey.
Agencies contributed to this report.