Analysis: Hamas operating from Turkey as usual despite Ankara's promises

Despite the anger in Israel, especially in the defense establishment and intelligence community, the government does not intend to throw away the deal.

By
November 6, 2016 16:09
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the Presidential Palace in Ankara

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech at the Presidential Palace in Ankara. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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On November 15, following multiple delays, the Foreign Ministry’s appointments committee is scheduled to choose Israel’s new ambassador to Turkey. Among the main candidates for the job are the ministry’s spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, who previously served in Turkey; the chargé d’affaires of the embassy in Ankara, Amira Oron; Ambassador to Greece Irit Ben Aba; and the political councilor at Israel’s embassy in London, Eitan Naveh.

Nobody would be shocked, however, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, decides to appoint someone close to him because of the importance he places on relations with Turkey.

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As soon as Israel announces the appointment and sends the envoy to Ankara, Turkey will reciprocate.

Turkish media have reported that the leading candidate for the embassy in Tel Aviv is Kamel Okam, a diplomat who is a very close confidant of one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s important advisers.

The decision to renew diplomatic ties with Turkey was made more than four months ago as part of the reconciliation deal signed between the governments, both of whom recalled their envoys after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May 2010.

Last spring, during the negotiations, it seemed that each was interested in ending this bleak period in their relations and quickly turning a new page, but it now appears that both sides would prefer to take things slow.

Just as relations with Egypt are referred to as a “cold peace,” the impression is that what’s happening with Turkey is a “cold reconciliation.”

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Almost every clause in the agreement has proven problematic.

Israel has transferred some $21 million to the Turkish government for Ankara to establish a special fund for the families of the 10 Turks killed aboard the Mavi Marmara and those wounded in their violent resistance to being boarded by Israel Navy commandos.

In exchange, Turkey agreed to pass a law that would disallow the filing of lawsuits against senior IDF officers and those involved in the planning and execution of the raid on the ship.

In recent years, such lawsuits have been filed in Turkish courts by the families of those killed and the charity organization IHH, which initiated and organized the flotilla, and which, according to American and Israeli intelligence reports, previously has been involved in funding and providing support to other terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaida and Hamas.

The lawsuits included requests to arrest former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and former OC Navy Eliezer Marom.

Things have gotten complicated since the law was passed by the Turkish parliament. IHH and some of the victims’ families announced that they are not interested in Israel’s “dirty” money, but in obtaining justice. They petitioned the court against the law, and their arguments will be heard next month.

However, what really disturbs Israel is the clause in which Turkey agreed to exile from its territory activists from Hamas’s military wing, the Kassam Brigades, and to shut down their offices, but will still allow Hamas government officials, who make up the political branch, to continue to operate from Turkey.

In the negotiations that led to the reconciliation agreement, Israel’s representatives insisted on the exile of Hamas’s military branch from Turkey, a request Ankara initially refused outright. This was a condition about which Israel’s intelligence community – the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), IDF and Mossad – was adamant.

Ankara claimed it did not agree with the distinction made by Israel between Hamas’s military and political branches and that in Turkey’s opinion, Hamas is an organization whose struggle against the Israeli occupation is justified, which they do not see as a terrorist organization.

The Turks later softened their stance and agreed to exile Salah al-Arouri, the commander of the Kassam Brigades delegation in Turkey. Arouri, who is from the Hebron area, was one of the senior Hamas military officials in the West Bank.

He was arrested by the Shin Bet and served two sentences in Israeli prisons for involvement in terrorism. He was expelled to Jordan, which refused to accept him, and from there moved on to Syria. With the start of the civil war and the closing of Hamas headquarters in Damascus, he moved to Turkey.

There, he established a headquarters to recruit terrorist operatives in Jordan and the West Bank and provided them with funds for weapons.

Arouri also issued the order to his operatives in the West Bank to kidnap Israelis. In one such attempt, three yeshiva students were kidnapped and murdered in Gush Etzion in June 2014 – the catalyst that led to the third Gaza war that summer (Operation Protective Edge).

Arouri continued to weave terrorist plots against settlers and IDF soldiers in the West Bank and within the Green Line, and, according to the Shin Bet, also against the Palestinian Authority in order to bring about its downfall. The Shin Bet uncovered Arouri’s network more than a year ago and arrested most of its members.

Then-Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and gave him intel on what the Shin Bet referred to as Hamas’s “coup plot.”

From Turkey, Arouri went to Qatar, which is also a Hamas base, albeit a distant one. Qatar has hosted Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal since he left Damascus following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

The shelter Qatar grants Hamas and its ties to the organization do not keep Israel from pursuing ties to the Gulf state, however. Qatar is the main donor toward the rehabilitation of Gaza, an apparently clear Israeli interest, as Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said again last week.

Israel is hopeful that Qatar, through its connections and influence, will help in the formulation of a swap deal, through which the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin will be returned to Israel, as well as three Israeli citizens who went missing in Gaza. However, at this stage, because of the huge gap in the positions of the two sides, such an agreement is not on the horizon.

Israel hopes Turkey will help mediate that agreement, as well. However, it is barely involved in the issue, despite requests from Israeli figures that it use its influence on Hamas.

Turkey also has given only limited humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza despite fiery rhetoric on the issue from Erdogan, who was wont to accuse Israel of “war crimes” prior to the reconciliation deal.

The direct aid Turkey offered totaled a few thousand tons of medicine, food, toys and more, which were unloaded at Ashdod Port and from there transported by truck to Gaza.

Turkey’s total humanitarian aid is about half of the value of the goods (some 400 trucks) that Israel delivers to Gaza each day.

Even before the reconciliation deal was signed, Alex Fishman of Yediot Aharonot estimated that Turkey had no intention of expelling Hamas military operatives from its territory.

Indeed, according to defense establishment information, the headquarters established by Arouri in Turkey are operating as usual. Military wing operatives continue to travel in and out of Turkey as they always did, and are still planning terrorist attacks against Israel.

Israel already has complained on multiple occasions that this clause of the agreement is not being implemented, but Erdogan’s government, which is still busy retaliating against those involved in the coup to remove him, has ignored Israel’s entreaties.

Despite the anger felt by Israel, the government does not intend to throw away the deal and is, in practice, accepting Turkish violations of the agreement.

Even Liberman, who opposed the deal since the beginning of negotiations long before he became defense minister, knows that not much can be done at this point.

Israel’s room to maneuver is extremely limited. It can inform Turkey that it, too, is breaking the reconciliation agreement, or it can simply wait for an opportunity to convince Erdogan’s government to shut down the Hamas headquarters.

Israel has a particular interest in normalizing relations with Turkey and hopes to sign a deal with Ankara to sell the Turks natural gas from the Leviathan reservoir. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) recently visited Turkey to meet with his counterpart, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law.

Israel also hopes that, despite the “cold reconciliation,” it will still be possible to rehabilitate security and intelligence ties between the two countries. The chances of such an occurrence are slim, but amid the volatility in the Middle East you can never really know.

If Turkey finds itself in a new and more powerful conflict with Iran due to its army’s involvement in Iraq, particularly in the battle for Mosul, it’s possible. There is already a lot of tension between Ankara and Tehran.

The Iraqi government is asking the Turkish army to get out of its territory, a move that Erdogan seems loathe to make at this point.

Under the pretext of fighting ISIS, the Turkish army invaded Iraqi territory to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the northern part of the country and to break up the land corridor that Iran seeks to establish from its own territory, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

If such a corridor were established, it could be referred to as the Pan-Shi’ite Highway.

If Jerusalem and Ankara indeed become closer in the future amid these developments, it can be assumed that, as in the past, the one leading the talks on the issue will be Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

It has been reported that former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, like their predecessors since the days of Isser Harel in the 1950s, met with the heads of Turkish intelligence.

If so, a meeting between Cohen and his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan also would be likely.

Perhaps Cohen will be able to convince Fidan to close the Hamas headquarters in Turkey and use his influence to implement a swap deal for the soldiers’ bodies and missing civilians with Hamas.

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