As Turkish-Israeli ties languish, Ankara has been quietly boosting its humanitarian support for the Palestinians as it maneuvers amid the massive wave of political transformation sweeping the Middle East.
One sign of its growing links with the Palestinians is that Turkey is now donating more than ever before to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees.
“In the past, Turkey was a relatively small donor to UNRWA, but it has increased its contribution from just $250,000 a few years ago to $1.25 million this year,” Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general of UNRWA, was quoted as saying in Istanbul’s Hurriyet Daily News.
UNRWA, an organization that provides education, health and welfare services for over four million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, said Turkey in the past decade Turkey has contributed some $7.4 million.
The contribution came following Turkey’s strong condemnation of Israel’s decision to launch new neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and legalize three Jewish communities in the West Bank.
“The Turkish Palestinian relations have been improving in the last few years. We have witnessed an increase in their support and a higher level of political involvement,” Ghassan Khatib, director of Palestinian Government Media Center, told The Media Line.
“Their level of financial aid is increasing and their political attention is increasing and there have been several visits by [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas to Turkey which have been given high profile,” Khatib added.
In a recent poll by the Palestinian Near East Consulting agency, 48% of Palestinians see Turkey as a friendly country, but 49% say they believe Turkey worked only for its own interests. On the other hand, just 2% considered Turkey anti-Arab. Also, it found that 68% believed Turkey was interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries, but that 39% supported this interference.
The Turkish-Palestinian relations were given a boost after the 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which left nine dead, as it was attempting to break naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given support to Hamas, the Islamist organization which rules the Gaza Strip, as part of its policy to identify and support the growing role of Islamist parties throughout the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“They are very openly seeking to become a regional power and become much more important internationally. Therefore, if you want to claim power in a new Islamic-oriented Middle East one of the things you say your are doing is playing a leading role in the Palestinian issue,” Barry Rubin, director of Israel’s Center for Global Research for International Affairs and editor of the Turkish Studies journal, told The Media Line.
“Up until now their support has been completely for Hamas. They don’t care about the PA because they [Hamas] are fellow Islamists,” Rubin said.
Polls in Turkey have shown that 40% of Turks have a favorable view of the Palestinians, the highest of all nations. Turkey is the second biggest exporter to the Palestinians, after Israel, as trade between them has steadily increased, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry. It said official exports to the Palestinians were nearly $30 million in 2009, but that unofficially was estimated to be about $200-300 million via resale through Israeli companies.
The additional financial support for the Palestinians being made now by the Turks also comes as it is drawing the wrath of Arab states in the region. Over the weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki said Turkey is becoming a “hostile state” in the region, accusing Erdogan’s government of interfering in internal Iraqi affairs and of sectarianism.
Ankara had hosted last week Massud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdistan region in north Iraq, and Erdogan stoked further tensions with Iraq by accusing Maliki of taking an "egocentric approach" in politics, creating a new low for Iraq-Turkey ties.
Earlier, Turkey’s leader called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, further deteriorating ties not only with Syria but its patron Iran. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood sees Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party AKP as competition.
“They are failing, hugely,” Rubin said. “Who needs Turkey? The answer is pretty much nobody. Hamas will take their money and their support …but they have other patrons. And they are not going to be the patron of the PA. The PA gets their money from the West.”
Indeed, the latest contribution to UNRWA came as the US freed much needed funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA) that had been withheld after the PA applied for full membership of the United Nations last year. A total of $147 million is expected to be provided for infrastructure and security spending to the PA, whose budget deficit now reportedly stands at $1.1 billion.
“The [Turkish] regime wants to project itself as a powerful force in the Middle East and this boosts the ego of the Turks and is very good for building support for the regime,” Rubin said. “What are they going to really get out of this other than that Turks will feel good?”