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Can Turkey deliver for the Gaza Strip?

June 30, 2016 at 3:09 pm

As we move into the final days of Ramadan, millions of Muslims around the world are giving money to charity. As usual, Gaza is up there amongst the neediest of causes.

This has been the situation for the past decade because of the crippling siege imposed by Israel and Egypt, which blocks humanitarian aid and efforts to rebuild the crippled infrastructure in the territory, home to nearly two million Palestinians.

I know from my own experience that most Palestinians do not enjoy being aid dependant but the brutal blockade keeps those living in Gaza suffering from extreme poverty and hardship. To be brutally frank, the corrupt leaders of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank are happy to keep it that way, as are some of their friends in the Arab world. The truth is that the Palestinians in Gaza have few genuine friends so their scepticism about Turkey’s bid to end the siege is only natural; no other people have faced so much betrayal, treachery and duplicity by regimes in the region. However, the reconciliation deal signed between Israel and Turkey on Tuesday should be seen more as an opportunity than a let-down, since one of its conditions enables a significant Turkish role to end the siege on the Gaza Strip.

What have the Palestinians living in the territory got to lose? Survival for hundreds of thousands is a daily struggle and the reconstruction promised by the Arab and Western worlds has failed to deliver. Israeli military offensives in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014 destroyed schools, hospitals and power and water treatment plants, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilian homes, making it virtually impossible for the democratically-elected Hamas government to provide public services on anything other than an hour by hour, day by day basis. Without forward planning, rebuilding and funds, no government can operate successfully in such a manner.

The siege has, though, been endured not for the past decade but for nearly 50 years. I was one of the journalists on board the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, which broke through the blockade imposed on Gaza when we sailed into the port on 23 August, 2008. We were greeted by tens of thousands of Palestinians and were told that our two small boats were the first to sail into Gaza Port in more than 40 years; that was how long the Israeli siege had been enforced.

This new deal brokered by Turkey aims to change that. As it’s the only sign of improvement on the table for the Palestinians in Gaza, it should be welcomed, albeit cautiously; while I have no doubt about Turkey’s sincerity in trying to get the siege lifted, the same cannot be said of Israel’s intentions. It is, after all, simply “easing” the siege.

The rest of the deal is that Ankara has extracted a $20 million compensation package and an apology for Israel’s assault on a Turkish-registered aid ship in May 2010, during which 10 Turkish peace activists were killed. This is probably a first in the region, as the word “sorry” isn’t normally part of the Zionist lexicon.

In return, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has agreed to pass laws that will prevent Israeli soldiers from being prosecuted in Turkey for the war crimes committed when the humanitarian aid flotilla was stormed by commandos in international waters.

Hamas has issued a statement praising Erdoğan for “a long history of support and solidarity with Palestine.” The movement hopes for a “Turkish role that ends the siege on Gaza and stops Israeli incursions.”

Of course it remains to be seen if Israel will keep its word but my feeling is that Turkey is not a country to be messed with. It is growing in stature and has already proved itself as a regional power which can sit comfortably with both East and West. That the European Union has now invited Turkey for membership talks covering budget contributions to the bloc is a sign that it has a role to play.

Palestinians should be happy that there is a regional power that they can trust — at the moment — and which will support and speak up for them instead of using their plight as a bargaining chip. As they know very well, actions speak louder than words, so they will have a good idea very quickly if the pledge to lift — or even “ease” — the siege is genuine.

Perhaps more interestingly, Turkey is now trying to improve relations with Egypt as well; again, I’m confident that the siege of Gaza on the Rafah border will be part of any deal agreed. It would also be a surprise if the release of Egypt’s only democratically-elected President, Mohamed Morsi, does not feature in the deal; Turkey has always insisted on this as a condition for reconciliation with the government in Cairo. This week’s flurry of diplomatic announcements by Ankara included an apology to Russia for shooting down an air force jet last November after it apparently strayed into Turkish airspace.

Turkey has an important global role to play and its pragmatic approach in recent days will only increase its stature in a region which is imploding because of self-serving Arab dictators and a general lack of solidarity and unity. Nevertheless, there are those who will try to undermine Turkey’s growing influence by acts of terrorism; a devastating example was seen at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport soon after the deal with Israel was announced.

These are going to be testing times for the Turkish government and its people. There are those who don’t want to see peace in the region, nor see the Palestinians prosper, and if Turkey is at the forefront of efforts in both respects, President Erdogan and his country are going to be in the firing line. Turkey and its people need to stand firm. In this they must have our support.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.