Second club probes player Eden Kartsev over Instagram story

Israeli soccer star returns home after Turkey detained him for gesture to hostages

Sagiv Jehezkel lands in Israel, with FM Katz blasting Ankara as ‘dark dictatorship’; Gallant: Ungrateful Turks acting as ‘executive arm’ of Hamas

Israeli soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel is greeted at Ben Gurion Airport on January 15, 2024 on his return from Turkey. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)
Israeli soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel is greeted at Ben Gurion Airport on January 15, 2024 on his return from Turkey. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

An Israeli soccer player detained in Turkey over an on-field gesture to hostages held by terrorists in Gaza rushed to leave the country on Monday, as Israeli ministers blasted Ankara as an accomplice of Hamas, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “full-on Nazi,” and Turkey as a “dark dictatorship.”

Sagiv Jehezkel celebrated his equalizer goal in Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Trabzonspor in the top Turkish league by making a heart sign with his hands to the camera and showing his wristband, which had the words “100 days. October 7” along with a Star of David symbol. The 132 hostages remaining in captivity in the Strip have been held there for 100 days after being kidnapped by Hamas-led terrorists on October 7.

The gesture did not go down well in Turkey, a country that hosts top Hamas officials and whose leaders have taken a highly hostile approach against Israel during the ongoing war.

Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said Sagiv Jehezkel, 28, a player for Antalyaspor, flew out of the country after being detained Sunday, appearing in court and being released earlier Monday pending trial. Proceedings will continue against the Israeli, but Turkish authorities allowed him to leave.

“Turkey is always on the side of all the oppressed and the Palestinian people,” Yerlikaya said in a social media post.

Israel furiously condemned Jehezkel’s detention, sending already strained relations between the two regional powers to a new low.

The Antalyaspor club, which at first feted Jehezkel’s goal and posted photos of the celebration on X, formerly Twitter, deleted the post a short while later after being met with a torrent of criticism and demands to oust him from the team.

Israeli soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel displays a message of solidarity with hostages held in Gaza while celebrating a goal for Turkish club Antalyaspor on January 14, 2024 (Handout / DHA (Demiroren News Agency) / AFP)

The club promptly suspended Jehezkel, and its president Sinan Boztepe said it would terminate his contract since he had “acted against the sensitivities of Antalya, Antalyaspor and our country” — a move that Israel’s Channel 12 news said would cost the team over $1 million.

The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) condemned the “completely unacceptable behavior” of Jehezkel, and said it found Antalyaspor’s decision to exclude him from the team “appropriate.”

Israeli soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel displays a message of solidarity with hostages held in Gaza while celebrating a goal for Turkish club Antalyaspor on January 14, 2024. (Antalyaspor/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Turkey’s justice minister, Yilmaz Tunc, announced later Sunday night on X that an investigation had been opened against Jehezkel on charges of “inciting people to hatred and hostility” over “his ugly gesture supporting Israel’s massacre in Gaza.”

In fact, the player’s gesture referred to the hostages, and not to Israel’s ongoing anti-Hamas offensive in response to the terror group’s October 7 massacre, in which some 1,200 people were killed and over 240 were kidnapped and taken to Gaza. Since then, a total of 109 hostages have been released, one has been rescued, and the bodies of some others have been recovered.

Jehezkel was subsequently arrested, and footage by Turkish media showed him being brought to a court on Monday, held and led on by two people.

In testimony to the police, Jehezkel said he wanted to call attention to the hostages taken by Hamas and in no way intended to support the war.

“I am not a pro-war person,” the private DHA news agency reported him as saying.

“After all, there are also Israeli soldiers taken prisoner in Gaza. I am someone who believes that this 100-day period should end now. I want the war to end. That’s why I showed the sign,” he reportedly told the police.

Media reports said shortly afterward that the athlete had been released from detention and would be deported from Turkey. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in its statement a short while later that it had worked “with all relevant authorities in Turkey in order to bring about the speedy release” of the soccer player, saying he would be returned home later in the day.

The Foreign Ministry worked through local authorities to take care of the technical and procedural obstacles to Jehezkel being allowed to leave Turkey, aiming to keep that the episode from becoming a full-blown diplomatic incident, The Times of Israel has learned.

The ministry maintained a low profile until he was released, instructing its diplomats to wait until he was allowed to head home before making a statement.

The Ynet news site had reported earlier that the Prime Minister’s Office, together with the Foreign Ministry and the Culture and Sports Ministry, worked to push Turkey for Jehezkel’s release, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructing ministers not to publicly comment on the matter.

But after the news broke of the impending deportation, ministers issued unusually strongly worded statements against Ankara.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks with Israeli soldiers at a staging area not far from the Israeli-Gaza border, October 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“When there was an earthquake in Turkey less than a year ago, Israel was the first country to stand up and extend aid that saved the lives of many Turkish citizens,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant wrote on X. “The scandalous arrest of the soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel is an expression of hypocrisy and ingratitude. Through its actions, Turkey serves as the executive arm of Hamas.”

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a National Security Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, an ultranationalist politician, charged that “Turkey acts toward Israeli players, and toward anything with a whiff of Israeliness, with Nazism.

“Erdogan is a full-on Nazi,” he said. “I call on Israelis not to travel to Turkey, not to buy any Turkish products and not to financially support them. The State of Israel and Israeli citizens must not act with forgiveness toward Turkey. We won’t let ourselves be trampled on.”

And Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who last week became the first sitting top Israel diplomat to accuse Ankara of committing the Armenian genocide more than a century ago, commented that “Turkey has become a dark dictatorship, which works against humanitarian values and the values of sports.

“Anyone who arrests a soccer player over an act of identification with 136 hostages who have been held for over 100 days in the hands of a murderous terror organization represents a culture of murder and hatred,” Katz said, calling for the world community and international sports bodies to punish Turkey over the episode.

National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Israel Katz attends the Special Committee for Oversight of the Israeli Citizens’ Fund at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 4, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett slammed the arrest on Sunday night, tweeting: “This is Turkey 2024. Shame on you, Turkish government.”

Jehezkel was one of hundreds of thousands of Israelis and supporters around the world who called Sunday for the release of the hostages.

Meanwhile, pressure was also being seen on Turkish social media for the İstanbul Başakşehir soccer club to take action against a second Israeli soccer player in the Turkish top league, Eden Kartsev, who published an Instagram story similarly identifying with the Gaza hostages and echoing the slogan calling to “Bring them home now.”

The fan club for Başakşehir, a favorite club of Erdogan’s, wrote on X: “We do not want Zionist supporters who disregard the values ​​and sensitivities of our country.”

On Monday afternoon, after initially ignoring the issue, Başakşehir published a statement saying it had launched a “disciplinary probe” against Kartsev, alleging that he had “violated the club’s disciplinary rules by publishing a post on his Instagram that harms sensitive values of our country, and we expect a written defense by the player on the matter.”

This is not the first time the Gaza war has been an issue for Israeli players in the Turkish soccer league.

Weeks after the outbreak of the war, Jehezkel and his Arab Israeli teammate Ramzi Safouri sat out a game after the league held a moment of silence in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza — without any mention of Hamas’s brutal onslaught on Israel that triggered the war.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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