There were no economic, commercial, military or political ties between Turkey and the Gaza Strip before 2006. It seems that the ongoing humanitarian crisis has encouraged Turkey to put the beleaguered territory at the centre of its interests in the area since the start of Israel’s siege.
In 2006, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) won most seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in open and fair democratic elections. Its political rival Fatah, Israel and most Western countries refused to recognise the election result and backed an oppressive Israeli siege against the Palestinian territories. The siege was tightened when Hamas fighters kidnapped an Israeli soldier as a bargaining chip for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, most of whom are held without trial.
In preventing an Israel-US backed coup in Gaza in June, 2007, Hamas drove Fatah out of the territory. Israel reacted by arresting most Hamas PLC members in the West Bank; most of its supporters in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and in NGOs, were driven out by Fatah loyalists. Fatah formed a version of the PA, led by American-backed Salam Fayyad, in the occupied West Bank, a step which led to Israel lifting its siege against it.
Turkey’s Prime Minster, Recep Tayyep Erdogan triggered his country’s relationship with Gaza when he announced his support for the right of Hamas to form a Palestinian government as a freely elected movement. That stance was rejected by the Ramallah PA, Arab regimes and international bodies. The former Egyptian president explicitly called for Turkey to stay away from Arab affairs.
The savage Israeli war against Gaza in 2008/2009 was a turning point in the political relationship between Gaza and Ankara. In the face of international hostility and the unbelievable Arab and Islamic world’s silence, Turkey took the role of defender of the Palestinians at international summits.
Erdogan denounced Israel’s massacres of civilians in Gaza and called for the prosecution of Israeli political and military leaders for war crimes. He also called for the illegal and immoral siege to be lifted.
The Turkish Prime Minster criticised Israel’s President Shimon Peres during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2009. Erdogan wondered aloud how such a man could be applauded while he is a killer of children, then stormed off the platform, saying that it would be the last time that Turkey would attend Davos.
One of the most prominent aspects of Turkish solidarity was the Freedom Flotilla, headed by Turkey’s Mavi Marmara, with 500 peace activists on board. It was intercepted in international waters and nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos.
As a symbol of respect for the Turkish sacrifice on the flotilla, the Palestinian government in Gaza built a memorial to the victimes of Israel’s aggression in the port of Gaza.
Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and froze military links. Erdogan also threatened to go to the International Criminal Court to investigate the legality of the Israeli siege against the Gaza Strip.
The media picked up the growing political relationship between Turkey and Gaza when the Palestinian Prime Minster in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh visited Turkey and met officials in the Parliament. Ministers in Haniyeh’s government have since made a number of visits to Turkey.
Some Turkish NGOs have been carrying out relief projects for a long time, but the number has increased since the beginning of the siege, with much larger budgets. Field offices have been opened so that they can supervise projects and consult with local officials.
Al-Sadaka Turkish Hospital, which is being built on the former Nitzarim Israeli settlement in Gaza, is one of the most prominent construction projects funded by Turkey. It is a part of the Medical Department of the Islamic University of Gaza.
The Turkish government and civil society organisations have started rehabilitation programmes for Gaza’s municipalities. The first of these programmes was a course in municipal management skills attended by the heads of 13 municipalities around the Gaza Strip.
Gaza’s markets are full of Turkish goods, ranging from clothes to chocolate bars. Traders go regularly to Turkey to sign agreements with businessmen and factory representatives for the supply of quality Turkish goods.
A Turkish-Palestinian agreement was signed recently, through which 300 construction workers will attend construction training before the start of the Gaza reconstruction projects funded by Qatar.
Wandering the Gaza streets, you will see many Turkish flags flying on houses and shops, as well as pictures of the Turkish Prime Minister. Many new businesses have been given distinctly Turkish names.
Although the name “Erdogan” is not Arabic it has been given to many Palestinian babies in Gaza. The most prominent of these is the grandson of Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh.
Turkish has become one of the most sought-after foreign languages in Gaza. Traders use it to help them during their commercial visits to Turkey, while students study it to qualify for Turkish scholarships. Ankara offers dozens of scholarships for university students in many fields in Turkish universities.
The many recent marriages between Turks and Gazans is a very positive sign of the strengthened links between Turkey and Gaza. If any good has come out of the negative aspects of the Israeli occupation and siege, it is this growing bond between Palestine and Turkey on many levels. That has to be good for the whole region, not just the Palestinians.