Israel ‘should stop playing games’ in normalisation dispute, say Turkey officials

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Mustafa Kamacı - Anadolu Agency)

Middle East Monitor  /  February 1, 2021

Ankara is becoming increasingly frustrated at Tel Aviv for “playing games” by stalling the normalisation of relations and accusing Turkey of hosting a Hamas secret cell, Turkish officials have said.

As part of efforts to re-establish ties, Israel last month demanded that Turkey no longer support the Palestinian resistance group Hamas and that it disband an alleged secret Hamas cell in Istanbul. The existence of such a cell, which the Times of Israel claimed in 2019 was set up to conduct cyberattacks on Tel Aviv, has been denied by Turkey.

A Turkish official, who spoke to the London-based news outlet Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity, said: “They [Israel] demand an end to things that don’t exist. There is no such Hamas secret cell in Turkey that conducts cyber-attacks.” Instead, he said, Turkey only hosts “Hamas leaders who have been sent by Israel to Turkey as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.”

That exchange, in which Hamas released an Israeli soldier in return for Israel’s release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, saw some prominent figures of the movement deported to Turkey, Qatar, and Syria in 2011.

Last week, however, the British newspaper the Times released an article claiming that Turkey is now abandoning Hamas by refusing to issue its members’ long-term visas or citizenship, curtailing its members’ freedoms and interrogating a member at the airport before deporting him – all based on reports apparently in Turkish media.

It also reported that Hamas was recruiting Palestinian students in Istanbul in order to send them to the West Bank as agents, and claimed that the Turkish government now sees the alleged secret cell as an opportunity to take action against Hamas.

“All a bunch of allegations without any proof. Which reports are they talking about?” Another anonymous Turkish official told Middle East Eye. “They just clearly want us to detain poor Palestinian university students.”

What Israel is doing with such claims, the officials believe, is playing games by showing that it is applying pressure on Turkey before finally reconciling with it. “Turkey is a heavyweight, one of the serious regional powerhouses,” the official continued. “Of course they want to talk. They are making these demands publicly to ready the [US President Joe] Biden administration, which could push both countries to reconcile.”

Relations between Israel and Turkey have for years been strained due to issues such as the Israeli shelling of Gaza and the attack by the Israeli military on the Turkish aid flotilla in 2010. In 2018, those tensions flared up again when Jerusalem was declared as the capital of Israel by the former US administration of Donald Trump, resulting in Turkey expelling the Israeli ambassador and recalling its own ambassador.

As part of the new efforts at reconciliation, Turkey appointed its new ambassador to Israel in December.