Creating new perspectives since 2009

Turkish youth activists demand Ankara cut trade with Israel

April 23, 2024 at 5:30 pm

Members of several non-governmental organisations march from Beyazit Square to Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque as they stage a protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza on the occasion of December 10 World Human Rights Day in Istanbul, Turkiye on December 10, 2023 [Esra Bilgin – Anadolu Agency]

Thousands of youth in Istanbul and across Turkiye have marched for a free Palestine since 7 October. Protestors, though, find themselves walking a thin line between arrest and freedom that is often not based on permits or peacefulness, but effectiveness or lack thereof.

Turkish activists like in “Thousand Youth for Palestine” may not be able to control Israel’s policies but they can control how Turkiye reacts to them. Unfortunately, that is how 43 of their members found themselves under arrest during a 6 April İstiklal Street protest demanding a trade embargo on Israel.

Protesting a foreign entity like Israel is permissible and even encouraged, but directing that same ire against Turkish policies that strengthen the Zionist state is where the line is drawn. Naturally, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) has organised its own protests of tens of thousands of attendees with no such harassment.

The difference is simple — one is a protest that demands a policy shift from the Turkish government, ending trade with Israel; the other is a parade that demands nothing, achieves nothing and happens to be sponsored by the ruling party. Protest is a tool of the people against the powerful; those who have access to the halls of governance have no reason to take to the streets.

OPINION: Will Qatar withdrawal from the Gaza mediation file allow Turkiye to play a greater role?

The fight for Palestinian liberation has forced Muslim countries to confront contradictions between their ideologies and their policies, whether they be Islamism, Pan Arabism or anti-imperialism. Turkiye is no different. For Turkiye, this has meant navigating NATO membership while often being at odds with its western allies. And for the AKP, this has meant navigating a business class bloc that criticises Israel but still conducts deals with Israeli companies, and a largely Muslim base that wants no role in the Middle East as a western client state. The AKP came to power as a conservative pro-business, Muslim party. Israeli trade presents a potential rift in this coalition.

Historically, Erdogan has navigated this mostly through rhetoric, in lieu of action. Despite diplomatic tensions and periodic public spats over Israel’s treatments of Palestinians, the AKP presided over a steady increase in trade with Israel. Some sources argue that Turkish exports even increased following October 7th and some of it even accounted for civilian weaponry.

The Turkish President’s condemnations of Israel have been strong, but his policies weak, leaving the country’s pocketbook at odds with its public persona. This could be subject to change. When it does, it will be due to many of the same protestors arrested on 6 April.

The AKP stance on Israel-Palestine is complicated by its mixed supporter base and Turkiye’s geopolitical position as a western ally seeking to be a leader in the region. Turkiye was one of the early supporters of South Africa’s ICJ case against Israel, publicly condemns Israeli oppression and is a significant contributor of Palestinian aid. However, the issue is not that the AKP has done nothing to benefit Palestinians; it is that, in the same breath, it has legitimised, cooperated and even aided their oppressors. Amidst Turkiye’s tumultuous relationship with Israel, there have been two constants — normalisation policies and pushback from Turkish citizens, such as after Israel’s killing of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara in 2010.

Meaningful solidarity with Palestine in Turkiye and across the Middle East is bottom up, rather than top down. There is an inextricable relationship between democratisation and Palestinian liberation. It is the people who have forced a solidarity that extends beyond gestures.

Turks are proving this, both in the streets and at the ballot box and we are already seeing the results.

On 9 April, Turkiye announced restricted exports on 54 major products until there is a ceasefire in Gaza. Among these include iron and steel products, construction equipment and jet fuel. This announcement comes one month after local elections in March, where the AKP experienced major losses in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, weeks after the “Thousand Youth for Palestine” Istiklal Street protest, and after seven months of mobilisations across the country.

OPINION: From the river to the sea – a call for rightful decolonisation

The AKP and Erdogan did not lose to the secular opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) because the CHP is suddenly more representative of the Turkish public. The AKP lost for the same reason many ruling parties lose – they betray the trust of their base.

The AKP’s political cleavage still represents the median Turkish voter at this moment — conservative, Muslim and working class. This, combined with missteps from the opposition party, has meant that Turkiye’s recent elections are more so AKP’s to lose than CHP’s to win.

Turkiye’s stance on Palestine is likely not the main reason the AKP lost. Inflation hit 68 percent ahead of the election, income inequality is rampant and the country is still recovering from the 2023 earthquake that took 53,000 lives and exposed corruption that both aided destruction and paralyzed relief efforts.

Ankara has been ineffective on the issues that most directly impact the lives of Turkish voters and, when combined with perceived hypocrisy on the Palestinian issue, presents an image of an out of touch ruling party, incentivising the base to stay home. The conservative New Welfare Party even campaigned on cutting diplomatic and financial ties to Israel, in response.

Palestine may not sway an election, but it can encourage an already sympathetic base to check out of the electoral process amidst larger economic struggles. If it was not a concern, Erdogan would not have called for trade restrictions immediately following the failed election.

Turkish voters, protestors and citizens from both leftist and religious camps forced Ankara’s hand and we are seeing the impact. Activists continue to push for a complete cut in ties with the Zionist state, but the Turkish government has not heeded their calls, thus far.

Turkiye’s government will change, as all governments do. New parties will gain and lose power and each of them will have their relationship with the West. However, one thing will remain constant both in Turkiye and abroad – there will always be young people willing to challenge injustice wherever it lies, be that at home, in Palestine or around the world.

OPINION: Genocide Joe encourages Israel to treat international laws and conventions with contempt

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