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Turkey-Palestine relations are growing

May 29, 2019 at 3:42 pm

Palestinians hold portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally in support of Turkey in Gaza on 24 June 2018 [Ashraf Amra/Apaimages]

A recent development is the growth of relations between Turkey and Palestine politically and economically, with Ankara dealing with both Fatah and Hamas. This is an indication of Turkey’s ability to strengthen its links with both poles in the Palestinian political arena, which are currently almost totally estranged.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has announced that it has handed over $3.5 million to the Palestinian Authority as part of a $10 million grant earmarked since September 2017 towards economic development. Earlier this month, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ankara to discuss issues in the Palestinian arena. The latter briefed his hosts on the difficult financial situation facing the PA due to US and Israeli sanctions.

According to Palestinian media, Shtayyeh met with Hamas officials living in Turkey to discuss the “deal of the century” and try to reach a consensus on it. A couple of weeks ago, the Deputy Chairman of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Numan Kurtulmus, met with former Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal in Istanbul and stressed his country’s permanent support for the Palestinian issue. Meshaal expressed his pride in Turkey’s continued backing. A month before that, the second Turkish-Palestinian conference was launched in the presence of officials from both sides and more than 300 Palestinians from across Turkey. The Turks reiterated that their country will remain a defender of the Palestinian cause and a host for the Palestinian people.

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The Palestinians’ presence in Turkey over the past few weeks indicates that Ankara’s status is growing in importance amongst them due to the limited regional options that they have. The Arab states have either become more attached to the US-led project or are preoccupied with domestic matters. Either way, they no longer give the Palestinian cause the attention it deserves. Thus, Turkey is shown in a better light given its embrace of the Palestinians by speaking on their behalf and adopting their positions.

The past few years have seen a Palestinian political and economic migration towards Turkey. In September last year, the governments in Ankara and Ramallah signed a mutual investment agreement to encourage Turkish investors to look at Palestine, maintain Palestinian investments in Turkey, protect mutual economic and trade investments, reinforce economic relations and provide a positive environment for investors from both countries.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas (L) hold a joint press conference in Ankara, Turkey on 28 August 2017 [Mehmet Ali Özcan/Anadolu Agency]

As well as the $10 million grant, there have been cooperation agreements between their respective public prosecution services, international and development agencies, education and culture ministries, and the postal and service sectors. Turkey is already a major trade and economic partner with the Palestinians, and its humanitarian aid varies between $10 and $20 million per annum, with annual trade between them worth around $400 million.

It is no secret that Turkish-Palestinian economic relations are more political in essence than financial, and the benefit in Palestine may be limited by Israel’s control of the border crossings and movement of goods. Israel is also an economic partner of the Palestinians, with $800-900 million worth of exports going to Israelis, despite the fact that exempting Palestinian products from taxes when exported to Turkey reduces their price.

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It is worth mentioning that Turkey prefers to keep its official links with the PA, while its dealings in the Gaza Strip are limited to NGOs and charities. Hamas does not appear to benefit from Turkey’s financial aid to Gaza because it is given directly to the poor and needy. The Turks do not want to be accused by the US and Israel of supporting “terrorism”.

However, Turkey’s increasing closeness to the PA while maintaining relations with Hamas, confirms that Ankara is keen not to lose any party in the Palestinian arena, even if this upsets both sides, with each wanting to keep such backing to themselves. It was significant that Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, held its 2018 annual conference in Istanbul attended by the movement’s members living in Turkey. This was perhaps the first time that Fatah had held a conference in Turkey, which indicates the development of its relationship with the Turkish government and increased coordination, even though Turkey also hosts dozens of Hamas members.

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Turkey, of course, behaves as a state should, not as a political party. It is interested in having lines of communication open with all Palestinian parties, especially Hamas and Fatah, and it does not favour one over another. This policy aims to serve the Palestinian cause in general and seeks to repair the rift between the rival parties and bring about national reconciliation.

Fatah’s relationship with Turkey has become stronger since Hamas’s understandings with former Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan in June 2017. These were not welcomed in Turkey, which accuses Dahlan of being involved in the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.

Former Palestinian senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan on 16 September 2015 [STR/AFP/Getty Images]

Former Palestinian senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan on 16 September 2015 [STR/AFP/Getty Images]

It is true that Turkey views the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people within the international community. Nevertheless, its relations with Hamas are strong, especially the special relationship between President Erdogan and Khaled Meshaal. It is worth noting that America’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has brought Turkey closer to all Palestinians, including the PA and Hamas.

Erdogan’s popularity in Palestine grew when he walked off the stage at the Davos Forum in 2009 after an argument with the then Israeli President Shimon Peres. He also hosted an emergency Muslim summit in Istanbul in December 2017, at which Mahmoud Abbas made a speech, following the announcement of Washington’s decision on Jerusalem.

READ: Erdogan slams Israel PM and son over anti-Turkey tweets

According to Hamas, Turkey’s policy towards the Palestinians is a positive model for dealing with all actors for the benefit of the Palestinian cause. The movement said that Turkey’s doors are open to all Palestinian factions because its vision is broader and more comprehensive than a relationship with just one party to the exclusion of everyone else. Hence, Hamas is not sensitive about Fatah’s links with Turkey; in fact, it welcomes them.

Israeli security circles, meanwhile, accuse Turkey of hosting dozens of members of Hamas and its cadres, and allege that their activities include the recruitment of armed cells from abroad to work inside the West Bank with the help of the movement in Gaza and released prisoners who are exiled in Turkey.

Through its projects in the Gaza Strip in particular, Turkey seeks to increase its political influence in the Palestinian arena. It implements economic projects in order for the enclave to be at a stage whereby Hamas can be more flexible in its political positions. Such projects across Palestine provide Turkey with the opportunity to become a major player in the Palestinian cause. Although Egypt refuses to give it a foothold in the Gaza Strip, anyone walking down the streets of Gaza will see pictures of Erdogan on display, as well as the many shops named after him. Official records show that many Palestinian babies have been named after the Turkish President.

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While the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey is close to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas is an offshoot of the Islamic movement, Ankara deals with the PA as the official government of Palestine. There may even be chemistry between Abbas and Erdogan similar to that between Erdogan and Meshaal.

Hence, regardless of their organisational and political orientation, the Palestinians believe that their interest lies in remaining close to Turkey, as a pivotal regional state with a great deal of weight in international politics. Palestine constantly hosts Turkish officials and popular delegations, and Palestinians believe that Turkey has balanced relations with both Fatah and Hamas.

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