ISTANBUL (AFP) - Four Israeli ex-military chiefs went on trial in absentia in an Istanbul court on Tuesday over a deadly 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship in what Israel denounced as a “show trial” by its former ally.

Hundreds of protesters from across the country gathered outside the court waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Damn Israel” as the trial opened.

Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for the four over the night-time assault in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea that plunged relations between Israel and and its closest Muslim ally into deep crisis. Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the largest ship in a flotilla dispatched by Turkish relief agency IHH to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, on May 31, 2010, leaving nine Turkish activists dead.

The defendants are former military chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi, former navy chief Eliezer Marom, former military intelligence head Amos Yadlin and former air force intelligence chief Avishai Levy.

They did not appear in the dock, after Israel ruled that those who took part in the raid did nothing wrong.

Resat Petek, a lawyer for the victims’ families who are plaintiffs in the case, said he expected the court to issue an arrest warrant for the men to appear in the trial, which is expected to last for months. “This is not a trial but a show trial and has nothing to do with law and justice,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP, saying the defendants had not even been informed about the nature of the charges.

“They haven’t been given even a symbolic chance to have legal representation,” he added.

“It’s a propaganda showcase. The government of Turkey, if it really wanted to do something about this issue, would engage with Israel.”

Mustafa Yaman, another lawyer for the families, said the outcome of the trial would “remain symbolic unless the case is handled by an international court”. Last year, an Israeli probe ruled that the raid did not violate international law, in a finding that Turkey said lacked credibility.

A UN report in September 2011 found Israel had used “excessive” force in the raid, but also said Israel’s blockade of Gaza was legal and that the flotilla organisers had acted “recklessly” in attempting the mission.

The raid triggered a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey and resulted in the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Turkey. Military ties were also cut.

There have been several other attempts to reach the Palestinian territory by boat, all of which have been stopped by Israel, without bloodshed.

“We are here to witness history,” said Mehmet Cinar, a member of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) which is one of the plaintiffs. “Israel is standing trial for the first time in another country.”

In May, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had said he was expecting foreign diplomatic pressure on Turkey to stop the trial, saying it could have “wide-ranging implications for NATO and US forces,” which frequently board ships suspected of terror activity.

Turkey insists ties will not return to normal unless Israel offers a formal apology, compensates the victims and lifts the blockade which prohibits all naval traffic in and out of the densely populated coastal territory.