ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Israeli soccer player Sagiv Jehezkel returned to Israel on Monday evening to a cheering crowd, hours after he was briefly detained in Turkey for allegedly inciting hatred after he expressed solidarity with hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza during a top-flight league game.
Jehezkel landed in Israel in a small plane and was draped in an Israeli flag upon disembarking. Dozens of fans mobbed him as he left the airport, cheering, singing, and waving flags.
“There’s nowhere like Israel in the world,” Jehezkel told reporters. “I’m very happy to be here, and I couldn’t wait to arrive.”
The Antalyaspor player was released from custody following questioning by police and court officials, a Turkish official said. It was not immediately clear if he was released pending a trial or if the accusations against him were dropped. Court officials in the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
The player left Turkey of his own will and there was no decision to deport him, the official said on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
Earlier, Turkish media reports said that the player was released pending a trial for inciting hatred. The reports later moved away from that storyline, without providing an explanation.
Jehezkel had been detained for questioning late Sunday after he displayed a bandage on his wrist with the words “100 Days 7.10” — in reference to Oct. 7, the day Hamas attacked Israel and the hostages were abducted — next to a Star of David.
The 28-year-old who plays for the Israeli national team told police he was simply calling for an end to the war.
Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc said late Sunday that Jehezkel was under investigation for “openly inciting the public to hatred and hostility.” Tunc tweeted that Jehezkel had engaged in “an ugly gesture in support of the Israeli massacre in Gaza.”
The gesture was deemed to be provocative in Turkey where there is widespread public opposition to Israel’s military actions in Gaza and overwhelming support for the Palestinians.
Antalyaspor suspended Jehezkel from the team and announced that it was speaking to the club’s lawyers about the possibility of terminating his contract.
During his questioning by police, the player denied accusations that he engaged in a provocative act, the private DHA news agency reported.
“I am not pro-war,” DHA quoted him as telling police. “I want this 100-day process to come to an end. I want the war to end.”
Jehezkel continued: “I have never engaged in anything related to politics since my arrival. I have never disrespected anyone since the day I arrived. The point I wanted to draw attention to was (the need) for an end of the war.”
The Turkish Football Federation condemned what it said was a gesture that “disturbed the conscience” of the Turkish public.
Jehezkel’s detention, meanwhile, sparked outrage in Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on the international community and sports groups to take steps against Turkey and its “political use of violence and threats against athletes.”
"Whoever arrests a football player for a show of solidarity with 136 captives who are more than 100 days with the terrorists of a murderous terrorist organization, represents a culture of murder and hate,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called Jehezkel’s detention “scandalous.”
“In its actions, Turkey serves as Hamas’ executive arm,” he tweeted.
In a related incident, Istanbul's top league side Basaksehir announced Monday that it has launched a disciplinary inquiry into its Israeli player, Eden Karzev, after he posted a message on social media marking the hostages' 100 days in captivity with the hashtag “BringThemHomeNow.”
Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg contributed to this story from Jerusalem.