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Israel trying to secure release of couple arrested in Turkey on espionage charges

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Israeli authorities are trying to secure the release of an Israeli couple that was arrested in Turkey on Friday for taking a photo of a presidential residence, Turkish and Israeli news outlets reported.

Turkish authorities detained Natalie and Mordi Oknin last Thursday for photographing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s residence in Üsküdar. The two insist they did not know it was illegal to do so.

On Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued a statement about the Turkish authorities’ report of arresting the Israeli couple and confirmed that he had contacted the detained spouses as well as their families and informed them of efforts to return them to Israel.

After Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Bennett said he had confirmed with Israeli officials that the couple “do not work for any Israeli [intelligence] agency.” They both works as bus drivers in central Israel.

He stressed that high-level Israeli officials dealt with the issue over the weekend, under the leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and will continue to work to find a solution as quickly as possible.

The couple reportedly visited a restaurant atop Çamlıca Tower and took photographs of the surrounding buildings, including the Turkish president’s residence, from the tower’s windows.

A staff member at the tower informed the police, claiming he heard the couple talk about photographing Erdoğan’s house.

The couple was subsequently taken into custody by the counterterrorism branch of the İstanbul Police Department.

The pair apparently didn’t know it was illegal to photograph the residence since the woman sent the picture to a family WhatsApp group with the caption, “Such a nice house,” according to the T24 news website.

In the meantime, Israeli journalist Ali Mograbi, who works for Channel 13, an Israeli free-to-air television station, was briefly detained in İstanbul while broadcasting live on Sunday. He was covering the case of the Israeli couple.

Ties between Israel and Turkey have been tense since a Turkish NGO oversaw a flotilla of ships that tried to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010.

There has been no ambassador in either country since May 2018, when the two had a bitter falling out, despite strong commercial ties, over Turkey’s reaction to Israeli attacks on Gaza and Washington’s decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The bilateral ties came under further strain when President Erdoğan denounced Israel’s West Bank annexation plan, vowing to prevent its implementation.

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