The Cradle
Hamas and Turkey: Is the honeymoon over?
Hamas' rifts with Turkey are not unprecedented, but this time Erdogan risks losing the Palestinian resistance card to Iran, Syria and Lebanon if he continues to overplay his hand.
May 06 2022
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The recent Hamas-Turkey crisis illustrates how the Palestinian resistance movement is split from within. Although Hamas has institutionally decided on a strategic alliance with Iran, the revived Meshaal faction still curries favor with an unreliable Turkey.
Photo Credit: The Cradle

Palestinian resistance movement Hamas is no longer able to hide its problem with Turkey. In 2011, Hamas took a hard line on Syria in favor of Turkey and Qatar. But eleven years later, the relationship is witnessing an impasse that Hamas can no longer hide, not only from its members, but also from the public. So what exactly is going on?

The Cradle interviewed a number of Hamas leaders, from the second and third leadership ranks, in Istanbul, Ankara, Beirut and Gaza, to get these details. They stipulated that their names not be mentioned for “organizational reasons,” or for reasons related to their place of residence.

More than a criticism

On the surface, Arab, Western and even Israeli media has tended to view the crisis as a new development, one that transpired after the recent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement – and Hamas’ criticism of it.

The revival of Ankara’s ties with Tel Aviv has been under discussion for a year or more, and culminated in early March with the visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Ankara where he met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Until then, Hamas was able to juggle its Turkish relations with some difficulty, and contented itself with a short statement criticizing the visit. But the Turkish condemnation of Palestinian guerrilla operations inside occupied Palestine in April placed Hamas in an impossible position, forcing the movement to issue a direct condemnation of the Turkish statements – and more.

Arab and Israeli media outlets then began to spread the news that Turkey was expelling Hamas military members or preventing a number from reentering its territory. Neither parties confirmed or denied those reports, which led to even more questions: Why is Turkey silent? Why didn’t Hamas launch a stinging attack against Ankara, as it did against Damascus 11 years ago? Had Syria expelled Hamas from its territory before 2011, would its war have happened – at least on this magnitude?

“Well-rehearsed game”

Sources we met in Istanbul say that what we are witnessing today is not an isolated incident, and has occurred more than once in the past years. In many cases, the Turkish authorities have requested certain Hamas members to temporarily leave the country, or to reduce their activities for a given period, after which things go back to normal. One source adds: “Everything is monitored in Turkey … what was happening was turning a blind eye to some activities at times, and tightening control at other times.”

These sources are close to Hamas’ external leader, Khaled Meshaal, who is the movement’s closest figure to Doha and Ankara, and its number one enemy in Damascus. To indicate that things are normal between Hamas and Turkey, they point out that Sheikh Saleh al-Arouri, the official in charge of the group’s West Bank file, is still visiting Turkey.

Al-Arouri left Turkey in 2015 at an Israeli request, settled in Beirut, and has moved between Doha and Tehran and even Damascus at times. “But he still comes here (Turkey) from time to time to meet Abu al-Abed (Hamas’ Political Bureau Chief Ismail Haniyeh),” the sources reveal.

The truth is that Turkish authorities have now instructed Hamas that Al-Arouri must now coordinate his visits to Turkey in advance – ostensibly because he uses more than one passport, under different names.

So, this is all a well-rehearsed game. It is true that there is “Turkish tightening” of Hamas movements and activities, but “this took place in coordination with the movement, and upon an understanding on these details before Herzog’s visit. Therefore, there is no media clash between us and the Turks, and there are no statements and responses to them either,” the source continues.

In Gaza, however, there is another side to this story. Sources in the besieged territorial strip deny the existence of an ‘agreement’ between Hamas and Turkish officials. It confirms that the news about preventing the movement from carrying out any military or security activity from Turkish territory is accurate, especially if the action targets the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the 1948 areas.

The Gaza sources also confirm that some Hamas members have been prevented from entering Turkey, others were asked to stop their activities, and worst of all, the residencies of a number of them were not renewed without valid reasons provided, which means that they have to leave Turkey immediately. Although the number “does not exceed 100 with their families, but it is annoying, and it is considered to be in compliance with Israeli conditions.”

The Turks have taken further measures this time, ostensibly for “security purposes:” they have reduced the number of visas granted to Palestinian students and to tourism companies in Gaza. And from December 2021 onward, any Palestinian in Gaza or the West Bank who wishes to obtain a Turkish visa must come to a consulate in person to provide fingerprints and an instant photo, where previously it was sufficient to send their passport in.

But the most punishing measure by Ankara is the almost complete cessation of Turkish relief work in Gaza since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The reason provided by Turkish authorities to its Hamas counterparts in Gaza was that Ankara is “shifting support to other regions.”

Bear in mind that Turkish relief activities that began in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s bombing devastation of the strip in 2009, have been significantly reduced since starting work in Ramallah four years ago (2017-2018).

Hamas vs Hamas

Hamas sources in Istanbul and Ankara say that their counterparts in Gaza “exaggerate” when describing the Turkish measures. They point to the fact that Hamas’ Gaza-based leader Ismail Haniyeh is a “semi-permanent resident” in Turkey as he is unable to hold all his meetings in Doha, and cannot visit Beirut whenever he wants. Therefore, he visits Ankara or Istanbul for a few weeks occasionally to hold these meetings. And since Haniyeh is the “head of the movement,” then “if there was a central Turkish decision to restrict Hamas, it would have been sufficient to prevent him from entering and stop hosting him, which never happened,” they argue.

“The movement’s leadership is holding a lot of meetings in Turkey so far, and it has not been prevented from doing so,” says one source. “According to our experience, everything that is requested now is temporary, regardless of how long it will last.”

“The Turks must give the Israelis what they are satisfied with, even if it is only in the media. But the reality is different. There are specific names under discussion, and it is not a broad and comprehensive process of expulsion or deportation,” he adds.

In late April, however, Israel Hayom newspaper reported that the Israelis handed the Turks a list of Hamas figures, including information about some of them being involved in military activities, in order to deport them.

Hamas sources in Turkey say that Ankara still allows entry to holders of the diplomatic (red) passport issued by the Hamas government in Gaza, while the majority of countries (such as Malaysia, Sudan, Syria and sometimes Lebanon) have responded to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority’s request to stop doing so.

They also point to Meshaal’s new TV channel venture that will air from Istanbul, as an alternative to Al-Quds channel broadcast from Beirut which was closed down years ago due to “financial crisis.” Sources in Gaza instead say that that the aim of the closure was to “isolate Meshaal.”

The opening of Meshaal’s channel, which announced in October 2021 that it would begin hiring staff, comes on the back of recent Hamas political bureau elections, which resulted in the return of Meshaal and his team back into the game. Meshaal, who is also known as Abu Al-Waleed, is a supporter of strengthening the relationship with Turkey and Qatar at the expense of Hamas’ relationship with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

Effectively sidelined by Hamas for the past few years because of his monumental miscalculations during the Syrian war, in the past few months, Meshaal has been “very angry” because of Hezbollah’s refusal to meet during his Beirut visit in December. It is likely also why Meshaal’s name will never appear on an Israeli ‘ban list.’

The Hamas defense in Istanbul is therefore this: “Is it possible to open a new channel for the movement at a time when Turkey is expelling us?” Meshaal’s call not to clash with the Turks is based on his argument that Erdogan is facing difficulties now; that Hamas must understand this temporary situation until the Turkish presidential elections in 2023 pass peacefully; that an Erdogan loss will have repercussions on the movement that cannot be compared to any Turkish measures or restrictions now. This is the same theory of ’empowerment’ (tamkeen) to which the Muslim Brotherhood adheres.

Sources close to Meshaal argue that Turkey treats Israel on an equal footing, and it may respond to some Israeli requests as part of its political maneuvering, but that it will not meet all of these requests. This ‘political maneuvering’ is what prompted Erdogan to improve his relationship with the UAE – even though it contributed to the 2016 coup against him – and with Saudi Arabia – which killed a Saudi dissident with a chainsaw on Turkish soil. It is realpolitik, they argue. All for money, investments, gas – and to retain his presidency.

Secrets revealed for the first time

Hamas sources in Ankara and Istanbul revealed further private details to The Cradle, saying the recent Turkish measures did not include Hamas members who have obtained Turkish citizenship: “These have become Turkish citizens, and Israel cannot ask their state to expel them or prevent them from entering the country… We are talking here about dozens of active people.”

They also reveal that “Turkish intelligence protects Hamas members, not only from killing or kidnapping, but also from espionage.” In this context, the sources point to the arrest last October of a cell of 13 to 15 spies working for the Mossad. They were spying on a full range of Hamas and supporters’ activities in Turkey, especially the Palestinian and Syrian students who submitted projects related to drones or engineering that could serve the movement’s military arm. These students are still studying in Turkish universities today.

The Turkish measures also follow US and Israeli diktats that while Ankara and Doha must “contain Hamas,” they should also not lose control of them. One sources explains: “It is true that there are limits to Hamas’ work in Turkey and there is full control over its activities. But if everyone is expelled from here, this will mean throwing these people into the arms of Iran, Syria and Lebanon, because Qatar or any other country will not be able to bear their presence on its soil… and this is last thing the United States and even Israel would want.”

Indeed, despite some ‘collateral damage’ such as military, security and financial activities, it seems that there is a great benefit to the Israelis and the Americans from Hamas’ presence in Turkey, and it is unlikely that Israel will ever request the complete expulsion of the movement and prevention of all its activities.

During this investigation, The Cradle heard many complaints within Hamas about the behavior of some of its members who live in Turkey. Many of these, after obtaining citizenship or residency, engage in investment and real estate projects, and leave work in the movement, and some of them travel to Europe, Canada and even the United States.

Anger in Gaza

The arguments of the Meshaal camp in favor of ‘tolerating’ Turkey’s new measures do not convince Hamas sources in Gaza, who say that a “comprehensive review” of the relationship with Turkey is underway. This review does not intend to end or sabotage the movement’s relationship with Turkey, but instead to assess its “feasibility” and “benefits.”

‘Turkish normalization’ with Israel has caused great embarrassment within Hamas and its members, as well as among its supporters. Many are seriously demanding to know what Turkey has done over the past decades for Palestinian resistance. Even in the years when the relationship between Hamas and Ankara improved, they note that the relationship between Ankara and Tel Aviv was progressing more quickly, and in more areas.

This anger is what prompted the release of leaks and statements over the past two months criticizing Turkish behavior. But the Meshaal-dominated leadership abroad was able to prevent the ‘deterioration’ of the situation, and pledged to communicate with Turkish officials to clarify their position. So far, the issue has not been resolved. It seems that officials in Ankara are in no hurry to provide an answer.

It may be more important, however, to pay attention to what the leadership in Gaza is planning that may ultimately affect the future of the movement’s relationship with Turkey. Sources in Gaza say that the Hamas leadership has taken a decision to bring the relationship with Iran to the level of a “strategic relationship” and not just an alliance, and that this is a decision that has been adopted by the entire movement.

This is why since the end of the last war in May 2021, the speeches of Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, have focused on the relationship with the “Jerusalem axis.” In his most recent speech on April 30, Sinwar spoke about Hamas’ coordination with the axis  “to open the sea route to and from Gaza.”

This is the same route that the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara tried to take in 2010, before the attempt ended with an Israeli massacre. But Erdogan has quickly forgotten his threats over the incident, and was satisfied with an apology over the phone from former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – after Washington’s mediation – which asked Netanyahu to pay compensation to the Turkish victims. Israel at the time “expressed regret” but did not cough up an apology, and offered to pay what it described as “humanitarian funding” to compensate the families of the victims.

Because Hamas’ relationship with Iran has become strategic, and the Gaza leadership attaches great importance to it – to the point that it believes a “war of liberation” is close – it seems almost certain that its relationship with Turkey will continue to decline.

This does not mean that the Iranians have reservations about the relationship between Hamas and Ankara. But “the past and the present reveal the near and distant future,” as described by those we spoke with in Gaza.

They raise a serious issue that is being exposed for the first time. The leadership in Gaza has learned that the Turks are using members of Hamas to help organize programs for Turkish visits to Jerusalem and to persuade Turkish citizens to participate. This is being done under the heading of “supporting Al-Aqsa Mosque,” but it ultimately aims to improve the relationship with Israel, especially as the Turkish visitors will enter the occupied territories on an Israeli visa.

These visits have been very active since late 2021, and come with the encouragement of both the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs and the support of Erdogan, who has a number of associations concerned with this matter under his direct administration.

In April, a huge controversy erupted on social media platforms about the visit of the famous Turkish ‘Chef Burak’ Ozdemir to Al-Aqsa. Many believed the visit was “not innocent” in its timing, as it coincided with the Palestinian confrontation with Israeli forces over the holy mosque. However, Burak was better received by the Palestinians than the Gulf ‘visitors.’

Anxiety in Beirut

Those we contacted from Hamas in Beirut were less angry, but more anxious. They also refer to a “restriction in the granting of visas” through the Turkish embassy in Lebanon dating back to around six months ago. The embassy spun this as a natural reduction in Palestinian applications from Syria, after the Palestinian embassy in Damascus made it easier for Palestinians to obtain a passport issued in Ramallah – which could be used to visit Turkey to obtain residency or purchase real estate instead of via asylum documents.

Whatever the real reason for this restriction, it cannot be separated from the latest set of Turkish measures that were recently placed on Hamas. But the biggest concern in Beirut is about the future of the relationship. This concern is not a result of the difference in viewpoints within the movement, because in the end the decision will be issued collectively and institutionally.

The concern is over the fate of the relationship with Ankara, which appears to be adopting a different approach with the Muslim Brotherhood, after taking harsh measures against its members. The last of these measures was the expulsion of the Mkamelin channel and the suspension of its broadcasts from Turkish territory. Will a similar measure affect Hamas institutions soon?

For these reasons, their concerns appear realistic, especially given the acceleration of reconciliation between Ankara and Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, all of whom are avowed enemies of Hamas – with Doha potentially affected by Turkey’s new behaviors as well.

The answer to this question can perhaps be found back in 2018. This year reveals a lot about events transpiring today.

The 2018 crisis

This was not a good year in the relationship between Hamas and Turkey. Turkish measures against the movement were similar to its actions today: refusal to arrange high-level meetings between the Hamas leadership and Turkish officials, freezing the renewal of residency permits for its members, and poor treatment of the wounded Palestinians from Gaza, among other measures.

That year, Turkey had expressed “disappointment” with the Syrian war, and with Hamas, which had decided in 2017 to improve its relationship with Egypt, start wooing Syria, and strengthen its relationship with Hezbollah and Iran.

The Hamas-Turkish crisis was then based in Ramallah. The President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas did all he could to sabotage the relationship between the two parties and he succeeded in that well.

At that time, Abbas met Erdogan, and provided him with information about an alleged ‘alliance’ between Hamas and the dismissed leader of Fatah, Muhammad Dahlan, who receives Emirati support, and who is accused of participating in plotting the coup against the Turkish president.

Hamas was unable to alleviate Erdogan’s wrath in this instance, and the latter ordered the transfer of the management of relief works from Gaza to Ramallah, and restricted Turkish aid to the PA in the West Bank. While the relationship gradually improved over time as tensions decreased, ties between Hamas and Ankara did not return to their previous levels.

Erdogan’s supportive statements about Palestine ebb and flow, and he stands accused of exploiting the Palestinian cause in order to gain popularity when facing internal crises. The Palestinian cause is still very popular on the Turkish street, and the president’s outreach to Israel has not been well-received.

Today, since Ankara’s relationships with Ramallah, Amman and Tel Aviv are thriving, and may improve soon enough with Cairo too, why does Turkey even care about the Hamas card and Palestinian resistance? It is a troubling question for the movement that its leaders often ask among themselves.

It seems that the coming months, not years, will hold an answer to that. While Erdogan’s actions are unpopular in Turkey, they serve his geopolitical agenda for now. On the other hand, with an uncertain 2023 election result looming, he will need his ‘Palestinian card’ to appeal to constituents – many of whom have now also turned critical of the US, which Erdogan is ever eager to please. It is an almost impossible balancing game for the Turkish presidency.

In the meantime, any Turkish actions against Hamas will not be surprising, but the movement has been put on notice, and its reactions may surprise Turkey right back.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.