Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Image credit: kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
On October 28, addressing a massive anti-Israel rally held in Istanbul and eloquently called "Greater Palestine Rally," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared triumphantly that "Israel cannot survive three days without Western support." "I reiterate that Hamas is not a terrorist organization. Israel was very offended by this. (...) Israel is an occupier, Erdogan speaks clearly because Turkey does not owe you anything," Erdogan told a frantic crowd of hundreds of thousands of supporters. After again accusing Israel of committing "war crimes" in Gaza, the Turkish President also said that the Western powers are behind the Israeli massacre in Gaza. Once again, he praised Hamas as nothing less than "a group fighting for the liberation of Palestine." Playing the Islamic card, he asked the leaders of the West whether they want a new war between the Crescent and the Cross.
He pledged a diplomatic initiative against Israel, promising to "introduce Israel to the world as a war criminal" according to state-run Turkish Anadolu network. "Israel, we will proclaim you as a war criminal to the world," Erdogan said. "We are making our preparations, and we will declare Israel to the world as a war criminal." The climax of the event was a mass prayer at the nearby Hagia Sophia, now converted into a mosque, another manifestation of Turkey's cultural Islamism.
In response, Israel decided to pull out its diplomats from Turkey to "reassess relations", a diplomatic jargon for a potential severing of Turkish-Israeli ties once again. "In light of the escalating rhetoric from Turkey, I have instructed the return of diplomatic representatives from Turkey in order to reassess Israel-Turkey relations," Foreign Minister Eli Cohen wrote on X. Multiple Israeli officials bashed Erdogan's aggressive and terrorism-praising rhetoric. "Israel wholeheartedly rejects the Turkish president's harsh words about the terrorist organization Hamas," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat responded to Erdogan's claims. "Even the Turkish president's attempt to defend the terrorist organization and his inciting words will not change the horrors that the whole world has seen and the unequivocal fact: Hamas = ISIS." "Erdogan is revealing his true face today. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood supports Hamas-ISIS terrorism. The keffiyeh [Palestinian headdress] won't cover up the shame either!" Energy Minister Israel Katz, who is set to take over as foreign minister next year, wrote on X.
The newly restored diplomatic ties between the two countries now seem on the verge of collapse. It now seems that Turkey is abandoning its half-hearted attempt to normalize ties with Israel after at least twelve years of diplomatic tension opting for a dedicated pro-Hamas stance amidst the ongoing Israel-Hamas War. Despite being a NATO member and a U.S. ally, Turkey has been providing diplomatic, financial, operational and even indirect military assistance to Hamas for the last ten years. Now, Turkey steps up its anti-Israeli and pro-Islamist rhetoric to a dangerous point.
"This is an extremely opportune moment to show leadership among the Islamist echelons which he has helped built up over his two decades in power and not only to contribute to the choir of political attacks among Muslim majority states, against Israel, but to take the cognitive battle to the next level making out Israel's war with Hamas as an existential confrontation between the Western/Judeo-Christian world and Dar as-Islam, the Muslim world, continuing his neo-Caliphate rhetoric which very much reflects the Muslim Brotherhood belief system", US national security lawyer, geopolitical analyst, and fellow at the Arabian Peninsula Institute and at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Irina Tsukerman, told the IPT.
Erdogan has not at any stage explicitly condemned Hamas whose operatives he continues to harbor in Turkish territory. As details of the deadly attacks have sent shockwaves in Israel and the Western countries, Erdogan still is refusing to condemn the murderous Hamas operatives; instead, he attributes the attacks to a "year of injustices against Palestinians" echoing familiar propaganda points of Hamas.
Turkey's extremely hostile anti-Israeli milieu
The fiery statements of the Turkish political leadership are just the latest manifestation of a whole series of blatant anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish statements and provocations held in Turkey over the last weeks. On October 25, addressing members of the ruling AK Party Erdogan had stated that "Hamas is not a terrorist organization, it is a liberation group, 'mujahideen' waging a battle to protect its lands and people," using the Arabic term. "The perpetrators of the massacre and the destruction taking place in Gaza are those providing unlimited support for Israel," Erdogan said repeating his attacks on the West. "Israel's attacks on Gaza, for both itself and those supporting them, amount to murder and mental illness." On the same day, he canceled his plans to visit Israel.
Interestingly enough, pro-Hamas feelings are dominant among the whole political spectrum, from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and even among the post-Kemalist CHP party to fringe pro-Iranian political groups. Huda-Par— a radical Islamist party and a member of Erdogan's coalition — even held a celebratory rally outside the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul on October 8 with chants of "Israel be damned!" Anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic prejudices have run deep in Turkish society for decades and have climaxed under the Erdogan government.
Erdogan has strongly criticized Israel's airstrikes in the Gaza Strip and has resorted repeatedly to anti-Israeli tropes. On October 10, Erdogan described Israel's response as a 'massacre,' accusing the besieged country of 'acting immorally in its response and massacring civilians. At the same time, Erdogan criticized fiercely a U.S. decision to relocate an aircraft carrier strike group towards the Eastern Mediterranean as a sign of support for Israel against any deadly attacks by Lebanon-based Hizbullah. He even went so far as to state that the U.S. actually plans to "carry out very serious massacres by striking all of Gaza." Turkey's relations with the U.S. have been fraught with suspicion, after Turkey's decisive pro-Russian and anti-Western diplomatic turn over the last years.
On October 12, Turkey's Ministry of Defense announced it was planning to ship humanitarian aid to Gaza probably using its warships. Such a move is a repetition of the pro-Palestinian flotilla of 2010 that caused the initial breakup of Turkish-Israeli diplomatic ties for over a decade. Although such plans seem by now to have been shelved, they are indicative of the way Turkish decision-making circles perceive the situation.
The Long-Standing Ties between Hamas and Turkey
The ties between the terrorist Islamist Hamas and the Islamic-centered Turkish government run deep and have been extensively documented. Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Hamas both trace their origins to the Muslim Brotherhood and feature a similar ideology dominated by anti-Western, Islamist and anti-Semitic elements.
Turkey continues to host Hamas operatives in its territory and refuses to recognize it as a terrorist organization. Hamas has established a headquarters in Istanbul since 2012, directing hundreds of terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank and laundering millions of dollars. Hamas continues to use Turkey as a major financial hub to avoid international sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Qatari-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is often present in Turkey, where at least 15-20 top senior Hamas members are also stationed. Erdogan himself has repeatedly met with the leadership of Hamas in Turkey.
"We should keep in mind is that Erdogan is not merely reacting to an opportune moment, but has rather contributed to this scenario through his political, military, and intelligence support of Hamas in Gaza. His security services have shipped explosives to Gaza just weeks before the attack that were intercepted; and over the past several years, Turkish intelligence operatives were known to be riling up Arab groups in E. Jerusalem, Gaza and elsewhere and to be providing various forms of counsel and assistance. Moreover, as studies by various think tanks have shown, Hamas operatives have even conducted attacks on Israel masterminded and logistically plotted out inside Turkey, and Erdogan essentially greenlighted these operations", Tsukerman told the IPT.
In 2020, the Turkish government granted citizenship to Ismail Haniyeh and in December 2022 to his son, Moaz Ismail Haniyeh, and to at least 12 other senior officials. Thus, Hamas leadership has Turkish passports and the ability to travel abroad with minimal checks to various destinations. Saleh al-Arouri is a senior Hamas official in charge of terrorist West Bank operations. Al-Arouri, a founding commander of Hamas' Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is a U.S.-designated terrorist with a $5 million reward offered under the Rewards for Justice Program. Al-Arouri was based in Istanbul, Turkey at least until 2016, using the city as his headquarters to direct Hamas' terrorist operations in the West Bank. He drifted between Lebanon and Qatar, but in 2020, Hamas members reported that he had returned to Turkey. He openly celebratedthe deadly attacks of Hamas and could be one of the masterminds of the whole operation.
In Israel's darkest hour, Turkey is resorting to anti-Israeli radicalism supporting Hamas as a "liberation organization," questioning the territorial integrity and legal status of Israel as a state. It is high time that widely held illusions in both Israel and the U.S. concerning Turkey's role should be decisively abandoned. The U.S. should consider imposing a set of sanctions on Turkey which continues its subversive role against Western interests, this time by openly praising Hamas and siding with the forces that wish for the destruction of the State of Israel.
IPT Senior Fellow Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine.
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