Turkish solidarity with the Palestinian people, especially during Israeli military offensives, is common. The offensives launched by Israel on the Gaza Strip in 2008, 2012 and 2014 saw remarkable Turkish political, popular and media solidarity.
The most recent assault led to people taking to the streets in several Turkish cities, especially Istanbul and Ankara. The Turkish media, meanwhile, was more or less united in exposing Israeli crimes. Like the media, the parliamentary blocs in Turkey rarely agree on issues, but they too were united by the Palestinian cause and issued a joint statement condemning the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people. The signatories were the five major parties represented in parliament; it was almost without precedent.
The presidency and ministry of foreign affairs rejected descriptions of "mutual violence" while condemning the Israeli air strikes. However, what has aroused the interest of observers are the ideas put forward by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his partner in government, the head of the National Movement Party, Devlet Bahceli. They may help to predict the future Turkish approach to the Palestinian issue.
Erdogan called more than twenty heads of state and governments to stress the need for an international force to protect Palestinian civilians. Turkey, he said, will provide political and military support for such a force. If the current political set up makes an international force highly unlikely, then Bahceli seems ready to back Erdogan in encouraging the Turkish people "to guard" Jerusalem. He also warned that the continuation of what he described as "Israeli terrorism" could lead to a regional or global war.
To understand the dimensions and implications of the Turkish position on the latest Israeli assault, it helps to consider relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv over the past few decades. Between 1948 and 2002, there was high-level military, strategic and diplomatic cooperation. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognise Israeli statehood in March 1949.
The turning point was the emergence of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party in 2002. In its early years, he sought to play the role of an influential mediator in the peace process, investing in the strong relations with Israel. Indeed, Israeli officials described relations with Ankara as exemplary, especially after Erdogan's official visit to Israel while he was prime minister. However, relations soon deteriorated after several events, most notably Israel's 2004 assassination of the founder of Hamas, the paraplegic Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. That was the first occasion that Erdogan described Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip as state-sponsored terrorism.
During the offensive launched by Israel on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, the Turkish government's condemnation of the aggression led to further tension, reinforced by the strong criticism that Erdogan directed at the then Israeli President Shimon Peres on stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. After Israeli forces killed nine Turkish humanitarian activists on board the MV Mavi Marmara as part of the Freedom Flotilla to break the siege of Gaza in mid-2010, Erdogan again used the words "state terrorism". The offensives launched by Israel on the Gaza Strip in 2012 and 2014 led to the further deterioration of relations, with Erdogan once again describing Israel as a terrorist state that kills innocent children.
It was noticeable recently that the Turkish position moved to a new, more serious level in standing against the Israeli aggression. This was evident by Erdogan's demand for an international force to protect the Palestinians. This was reiterated by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in his speech to the UN Security Council on 20 May. Then Bahceli indicated that in the event that the international protection force proposal isn't taken up, the Turkish people must guard Jerusalem.
This leads me to wonder what sort of support Ankara will provide to the Palestinians, and whether it will go beyond political solidarity and humanitarian aid. At the moment, we simply don't know, but it seems clear that new standards are in play in terms of Turkey's approach to the Palestinian issue which are likely to see yet more deterioration in relations with Israel. However, they are also likely to boost support for the people of occupied Palestine.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 23 May 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.