Between a rock and a hard place

A man waves a Palestinian flag and others clash with anti riot policemen outside the Israeli consulate during a protest to show solidarity with Palestinians, Istanbul, Turkey, 18 October 2023
'Many Turks are critical of the fact that the government is voicing sympathy with the Palestinians while maintaining its trade ties with Israel,' writes Ayşe Karabat. Pictured here: a pro-Palestinian protest outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul in October (image: Emrah Gurel/AP Photo/picture alliance)

Between domestic pressure to take more action against Israel and pressure from the West regarding its stance on Hamas, Turkey is struggling to balance its Israel policy as it seeks permanent peace in the Middle East

By Ayşe Karabat

"You are an accomplice to Israel; there is Palestinian blood on your hands. You have contributed to all the bombs that Israel dropped on Gaza," were the closing words of the speech delivered by MP Hasan Bitmez before he collapsed in front of parliament after suffering a heart attack on 12 December. He died in hospital two days later. 

A member of the conservative opposition Felicity Party, Bitmez had used his address to criticise President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) for what he saw as its hypocrisy on Israel. His criticism came amid mounting pressure from conservatives on Erdoğan, who has harshly condemned Israel's bombardment of Gaza, for not severing commercial and diplomatic ties with Israel. 

'Prayers to Palestine, ships to Israel'

Opposition conservative Future Party leader Ahmet Davutoğlu, himself a former prime minister under Erdoğan, said on 6 December that more than 350 cargo ships, some of which carried goods for the Israeli army, had sailed from Turkey to Israel since the war began after the Hamas attacks on 7 October.

Davutoğlu also shared a video identifying the ships, saying that many are associated with businesspeople directly linked to the AKP. The office of the president denied the claims, saying the video was an old one. 

However, the denial did nothing to address the depth of feeling in Turkey about Gaza. Many Turks are critical of the fact that the government is voicing sympathy with the Palestinians while maintaining its trade ties with Israel, with some referring to the policy as "prayers to Palestine, ships to Israel."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) speaks while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) smiles at him, both men are sitting in leather armchairs, the New York skyline can be seen through the window behind them, Turkish House, New York, USA, 19 September 2023
Turkish–Israeli relations only recently began to improve after a long period of strain between the two countries. Pictured here: President Erdogan (right) meets Benjamin Netanyahu in New York (image: AK Party/Zuma/picture alliance)

Pressure from the West

The Turkish government is not only under pressure from conservatives to take a tougher stance on Israel, the West is simultaneously pushing it to review its ties with Hamas, which Erdoğan has called a "group of freedom fighters". 

At the same time, Turkey is unwilling to further strain relations with the West, especially as it seeks to purchase US F-16 fighter jets in return for ratifying Sweden's admission to NATO

Amid all the wrangling, Israel has announced plans to kill Hamas leaders around the world, including in Turkey. Erdoğan warned that Israel would pay "a heavy price" if it targets Hamas members on Turkish soil. 

Nevertheless, things for prominent Hamas members living in Istanbul will not be the same as they were before the Hamas attacks of 7 October. There are unconfirmed reports that the Turkish government has asked Hamas Political Bureau Chief Ismail Haniyeh, who is known to visit Istanbul frequently, to leave the country. 

These reports caused further discontent among the AKP's Islamist supporters. Nevertheless, Israeli media reports have suggested that top Hamas figures held a secret meeting in Turkey on 17 December.

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Long-standing Hamas presence in Turkey

Hamas established a presence in Turkey in 2011 as a part of an Egyptian-brokered deal in which Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including high-profile Hamas figures, in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, more Hamas members moved to Turkey from Damascus. 

In addition to Hamas's presence in Turkey, its fundraising activities there placed a further strain on Turkish–Israeli relations, which had only recently begun to improve after a long period of strain. Hamas's fundraising is also a source of tension between the US and Turkey.

Brian Nelson, the US Treasury's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, who was in Turkey in early December, said the US had not detected additional Hamas money flowing through Turkey since 7 October, but added that the country had played "a prominent role in [past] fundraising streams and ... that Hamas is going to seek to take advantage of that fact as it raises additional funds."

Turkish political scientist and Middle East expert Nuray Mert told that contrary to the image portrayed by some Western media, Turkey's stance in the recent conflict cannot be considered pro-Hamas. 

"Erdoğan learned a lot from the Arab spring. This time, [Turkey] is acting cautiously. If Turkey was really pro-Hamas, there would be more big rallies calling for Turkish troops to be sent to Gaza, and ties with Israel would have been cut," she said.

"Erdoğan is a pragmatic leader. He is trying to pacify the Islamists in Turkey, while at the same time trying to balance relations with the West, especially in view of the economic crisis in Turkey," she added.

Erdoğan accuses Israel of committing war crimes

Erdoğan has accused Israel several times of committing war crimes. While addressing a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Doha on 4–5 December, for instance, he said, "Israel must not get away with the crimes it has committed." 

A group of Turkish legal experts has submitted a file to the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israel in a move supported by Erdoğan and, according to pro-government media, supported overwhelmingly by the public. 

Galip Dalay, a prominent analyst of Turkish politics at Oxford University, also thinks that Erdoğan's anti-Netanyahu rhetoric is related to domestic politics and that Ankara is taking a different approach. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (centre) holds the arms of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and head of the Hamas Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh (right) at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, 26 July 2023
There are unconfirmed reports that the Turkish government asked Hamas Political Bureau Chief Ismail Haniyeh (right, pictured here with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (centre) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (left), who is known to visit Istanbul frequently, to leave the country (image: Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency via REUTERS)

Diplomatic path to peace

According to Dalay, Ankara is dismayed by the West's unequivocal support for Israel and hopes that non-Western powers such as China and Russia will get more involved. He also underlined that rather than overshadowing or competing with them, Ankara supports and complements the roles of key Arab states such as Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Dalay also points out that Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan has toured regional and international capitals to promote and develop a multi-country guarantor system as a way out of the conflict. 

Although this proposal has not yet been taken up, the idea behind the system is that Turkey, certain Arab states and relevant international actors would play the role of guarantor for the Palestinian side. 

"Since the war is taking place in Gaza, Turkey seems to be concentrating on Hamas, but it is also working on establishing a broader Palestinian umbrella that includes Hamas," he told

"Despite Israel's resistance, sooner or later, an international peace conference might be convened – as has been the case in the past. Ankara is hoping and working for a broad conference based on a two-state solution and wants to be a prominent part of it," he said. 

While directing angry words at Israel, Erdoğan is also placing great emphasis on achieving regional peace. Explaining Turkey's roadmap regarding the conflict, he said that the country would step up its efforts to persuade countries that abstained in the UN General Assembly vote on a non-binding resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on 13 December. 

Speaking to journalists on his return from COP28 in Dubai, Erdoğan said that he was being guided in his actions by the motto "How can we find the opportunity for permanent peace again?"

Ayşe Karabat

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