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Palestinian developments are straining Turkey-Israel relations

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]

Recent weeks have witnessed a series of developments in Palestine that have produced mixed reactions in Turkey and Israel. Their relationship is back to the level of tension prevalent in the wake of the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010.

The most recent development was the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will annex the occupied Jordan Valley if he wins Israel’s General Election. Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, criticised Netanyahu’s remarks as, “A vile attempt to win a few more votes in the coming election at the expense of destroying the hopes of achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East.” He added that Israel was encouraged by “some” countries and is on the verge of turning into a racist, apartheid regime.

Çavuşoğlu’s comments produced a quick response from his Israeli counterpart Yisrael Katz. “Erdogan’s regime systematically violates human rights, brutally persecutes the Kurds and supports the terrorists of Hamas,” Katz tweeted. “He is the last person who should be preaching morals to Israel.”

The Turkish Minister responded, “Those who feel uncomfortable about our statement today, brutally & indiscriminately massacre our Palestinian brothers and sisters, viciously use state terrorism before the eyes of the world and even attempt to shamelessly attack our President. [We] Will defend this just cause till the end!”

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Last month, Katz used Twitter to say that he had instructed his ministry to formulate a package of measures “to stop Turkey’s incitement and subversion” in [occupied] East Jerusalem. Çavuşoğlu saw this as electioneering. “A dirty game is once again being played in #Israel at election time,” he tweeted. “Will never give up supporting our Palestinian brothers and sisters in East Jerusalem, capital of #Palestine under occupation and defending the Palestinian cause.”

The development in Palestinian affairs straining Turkey-Israel relations the most is the latter’s request for the EU to intervene with Turkey to stop Hamas activities in Istanbul, which it believes are involved in managing armed operations in the West Bank remotely. Israel also urged the EU to close the Hamas office in Turkey, and accused Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan of turning a blind eye to the movement’s activities in his country.

Although, with the 2016 reconciliation agreement, Ankara committed itself not to allow Hamas to plan armed operations whilst based in Turkey, Israeli intelligence believes that such activities have never stopped and that Turkey treats Hamas as a legitimate organisation. This, concludes Israel, means that the Turkish authorities must agree with such operations.

Israel has not stopped at diplomatic protests to the Turkish government; it has also complained to a number of European governments, through its diplomats as well as senior politicians and army officers. The Israelis are demanding that the Europeans should take a stronger approach to Turkey on this matter.

Turkey’s considerable activity in occupied Jerusalem includes funding by Turkish organisations of their Palestinian counterparts, and the organisation of trips between the Holy City and Ankara. Thousands have participated in these trips, including prominent Turkish figures. They have also organised protests in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque. Charities and NGOs are working in East Jerusalem as Turkey seeks to maintain and expand its presence there. It has tried to buy property in the area and organise activities in support of the Palestinians in the city. As well as the Israelis, this is a source of concern for the Palestinian Authority, which does not want another partner in Jerusalem.

Protests at Al-Aqsa Mosque [Shehab News Agency]

Protests at Al-Aqsa Mosque [Shehab News Agency]

Indeed, the Israelis recently accused the Turkish Consul in Jerusalem of supporting the activities of organisations in East Jerusalem, most of which are affiliated with the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. IHH organised the Freedom Flotilla which tried to take humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza Strip in 2010, which was attacked in international waters by Israeli commandos. According to the Israelis, Turkey is pushing the Palestinians towards a violent conflict with the Zionist state, while Turkey portrays itself as a protector of the holy sites in Jerusalem as part of its strategy to be a key regional player. Other attacks on Turkey’s role in Palestine include the claim that it wants to re-establish the Ottoman Empire, to which Israeli Jews must submit.

Turkey, claims the Israeli government, not only believes that Hamas is a legitimate political movement — and that Israel is a terrorist state — but also that Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the Northern Islamic Movement inside Israel is a sincere peace activist, despite his calls for the de-legitimisation of the Zionist state. Israel is thus putting pressure on Turkey by blocking its money from being pumped into Jerusalem and limiting its charitable and tourist access to the Old City; it is also considering lawsuits against Erdoğan at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The list of Israeli accusations against Turkey includes Ankara’s helping of the Palestinians in their land ownership claims. The authorities in Turkey have sent copies of ownership documents from the Ottoman archives, giving details of land sales and purchases, particularly in what is now Israel during the 400 years of Ottoman rule in Palestine. This legal assistance helps Palestinians in their political struggle against Israel.

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Turkey’s position as a supporter of the Palestinians was evident when the US announced last year that it was cutting its own aid to them; Ankara responded by providing $10 million in aid to support the PA’s official budget. The Erdoğan government has also backed projects in the Palestinian territories with at least $186 million to build hospitals, schools, mosques and residential buildings, and to rebuild homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Erdoğan increased Turkey’s annual contribution to UNRWA to $10 million, and is interested in setting up water and energy infrastructure projects in Gaza.

The Turkish government recognises that the Palestinian issue is of great importance in regional politics. Its increasing influence is evident in its response to Israel’s siege on Gaza, where Egypt refuses to give Turkey a foothold, because the government in Cairo regards the enclave as an internal Egyptian matter. There are also strained relations between Egypt and Turkey due to the latter giving refuge to exiled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Cairo is afraid that Ankara’s increased influence will pose a threat to its own border with the Gaza Strip.

Despite all of the tension, though, it is unlikely that we will see a complete split between Israel and Turkey. The Turkish government will continue its support of Hamas and its calls for the siege of Gaza to be lifted. The Islamic Resistance Movement, meanwhile, must be wise in its dealings vis-à-vis Turkey-Israel relations. The last thing that Hamas wants is to alienate Ankara and leave itself exposed to whatever Israel wants to throw at it.

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

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