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Why is Israel targeting Turkey’s presence in Jerusalem?

July 20, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Palestinians who were wounded by Israeli troops during clashes hold portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and celebrate after Erdogan had won in Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on 25 June, 2018 [Ashraf Amra/Apaimages]

Israel is targeting the presence of Turkish activity in occupied Jerusalem. It began with a suspicious leak to Haaretz newspaper on 28 June about a Palestinian and Arab complaint to Tel Aviv regarding the growing Turkish activity in Jerusalem and the demand for it to be restricted. The matter then developed with the Israeli media publishing plans and strategies to confront this presence, and then reaching practical implementation with the arrest of Turkish citizen Ebru Ozkan for several weeks on baseless charges and accusations. Finally, TIKA official in Gaza, Mohamed Murtaja, was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on the pretext of providing assistance to Hamas in the besieged Gaza Strip.

The Haaretz leak was the Israeli green light to target the Turkish presence in Jerusalem. The leak referred to a Palestinian-Jordanian-Saudi complaint of this presence, and asked the Israeli authorities to curtail and contain it. I think the leak was specifically sent to Haaretz, as it is left-wing newspaper generally opposed to Israeli policy and what it writes is taken very seriously by the media and the Palestinian Arab public in general. I personally believe it is incorrect or inaccurate and incomplete. For example, the PA is not disturbed by the presence of Turkish activity because it serves the Palestinian interests. Also, Ankara and the Turkish humanitarian associations are in constant contact with the activities of independent Palestinian Islamic parties and even have a good relationship with the PA. They also provide their services and aid to Jerusalemites without discrimination or favouritism.

Politically, the Ramallah Authority is satisfied with Turkey’s policies regarding the Palestinian issue in general, and particularly concerning Jerusalem. This was demonstrated by the high level participation in the extraordinary Islamic conferences hosted by Istanbul. Moreover, President Abbas was the first foreign leader to congratulate President Erdogan on his victory in the presidential elections as soon as the preliminary results were released and before they were formally announced.

Read: Turkey slams Israel’s ‘Jewish nation-state’ law

The same can be said about Jordan’s position towards the Turkish positions and policies, especially with the continued unequivocal emphasis on Ankara’s support for Jordanian guardianship over the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. Amman also participated (despite Arab pressures), on a senior level, in support of the Palestinian Arab-Muslim-Christian right in the extraordinary Islamic conferences called for by Erdogan against Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to the Holy City of Jerusalem. I doubt and I am not convinced that Amman is disturbed by the Turkish presence, because it is in its interest, and does not cause any harm to Jordan.

Only Riyadh may be disturbed by the Turkish presence in Jerusalem, in the Palestinian cause, and generally by the Turkish policy in the region, as it directly supports the revolutions and the right of peoples to self-determination and their rejection of coups, counter-revolutions, and the Saudi-sponsored “deal of the century”. Despite this, Saudi Arabia’s presence is timid in Jerusalem, and there is no financial gain to it presence in order for Turkey’s presence to pose competition to it.

In general, the leak to Haaretz was merely a reference to the beginning of the Israeli targeting of the Turkish presence in Jerusalem, which was based on reasons caused by Israel itself. However, it is claiming that this came at the request of the Palestinian and Arab parties to justify its targeting and make it acceptable. It is also an effort to cause sedition and division, and drive a wedge between Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan in particular, which are most concerned with the holy city and the power struggle in it.

This Israeli targeting has mainly included a major restriction on the activities of the humanitarian organisation TIKA and other humanitarian and relief organisations operating in Jerusalem. It has also imposed restrictions on visits and freedom of movement of Turkish citizens in the city recently.

Read: Israel plans to cut off Turkey’s helping hand to Jerusalemites

It is in this context that the case brought against Turkish citizen Ebru Ozkan comes into play. She was charged with delivering a telephone charger and $500 from her colleague at work in Ankara to one of her Palestinian friends. The same can be said about the trial of TIKA worker in Gaza, Mohamed Murtaja, although he was doing his job and carrying out his duty of helping those in need, regardless of their political affiliations, and despite the fact that he has travelled through Israeli checkpoints for years with his work ID without any harassment or questioning.

However, Tel Aviv is somewhat restricted or embarrassed (which is why it resorted to the Haaretz leak) in its targeting of the Turkish presence in the Holy City as it is being carried out peacefully and legally in accordance with the relevant international conventions and treaties, even under Israeli law itself. Meaning, TIKA carries out its humanitarian and relief activities in public, in accordance with the law and the knowledge of the Israeli authorities and under its supervision. It provides services to Palestinian citizens, helps them reconstruct their homes and institutions, and supports them in education and health in order to confront the occupation’s illegal practices that the entire world and its institutions do not recognise as legitimate.

The Turkish citizens’ visit to Jerusalem are also a part of the same peaceful and legal context and within the scope of the diplomatic relations between the two countries that Tel Aviv claims to preserve and uphold. More importantly, Israel’s irritation with the situation exposes the hypocrisy and duplicity of the Israeli narrative that claims freedom of worship and invites Muslims to visit their holy sites in the occupied city.

Read: Turkish medical team arrives in Gaza

I think that Israel’s campaign to target the Turkish presence in Jerusalem has an exploitive aspect or dimensions related to opening political debate with the Turkish government on the previous files to try to influence them, as well as discuss the deteriorating political and diplomatic relations between the two countries and trying to restore them to normal. It may also want to open the subject of Hamas’ activity in Turkey or some Turkish citizens’ relationship with the movement.

In any case, the entire story reflects the Israeli distress caused by Turkish activity in Jerusalem and the Turkish policies towards the Palestinian cause and the region in general. Tel Aviv is certain of its inability to change these policies or influence them, and incapable of restricting the Turkish presence in Palestine on every level. This presence embarrasses Israel and exposes it, while, at the same time, leaving it unable to confront the presence without risking a crisis that could lead to the severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, this relationship is one that Tel Aviv believes it needs, even at its current low level.

This article first appeared in Arabic in the Palestinian Information Centre on 19 July 2018

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