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'Stop playing games': Turkey agitated by Israeli media campaign demanding concessions

Officials deny reports Ankara is being compelled to crack down on Hamas, saying Israel is playing politics for the benefit of the Biden administration
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Hamas's political bureau chief Ismail Haniya during a meeting in Istanbul (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Turkey is increasingly agitated by an apparent Israeli media campaign to force Ankara to deport a number of Hamas leaders as a condition of reconciliation between the two regional powers.

"They should stop playing games," a Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since Joe Biden was elected US president in November, precipitating possible regional shifts, Turkey and Israel have been attempting to iron out their differences through negotiations via their intelligence agencies.

Neither country currently has an ambassador in situ. Turkey asked Israel's ambassador to temporarily leave the country and withdrew its own envoy after Israeli forces killed scores of Palestinians in Gaza protesting against the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018.

'There is no such Hamas secret cell in Turkey that conducts cyber attacks. We have Hamas leaders who have been sent by Israel to Turkey as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange'

- Turkish official

After the most recent round of talks between Turkey and Israel, Israeli officials have begun making demands of Ankara in the media.

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Last week, right-wing newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth quoted a senior Israeli diplomat as saying Israel won't exchange ambassadors until Ankara cracks down on malevolent Hamas activities. 

The Palestinian movement was accused by the report of establishing a secret cell in Istanbul without Turkish knowledge, and conducting cyber attacks on the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

The senior diplomat also alleged that Hamas was directing and financing "terrorist activities in the West Bank, and recruiting Palestinians" in Turkey. 

"Above other things, they demand an end to things that don't exist," the Turkish official said. "There is no such Hamas secret cell in Turkey that conducts cyber attacks. We have Hamas leaders who have been sent by Israel to Turkey as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange."

Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange of the release of Israeli soldier Shalit from Hamas custody in 2011. Israel then deported dozens of them to Turkey, Syria and Qatar.

Mysterious citations

Turkish officials told MEE they find it odd that both Yedioth Ahronoth and then Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer in the UK's The Times cited non-existent "Turkish press reports" that Ankara recently started a crackdown on Hamas activities.

Yedioth Ahronoth said Ankara had recently imposed restrictions on Hamas members, and arrested one of its operatives in Istanbul International Airport, interrogating them for six hours before demanding they immediately leave the country. No Turkish media reports on such allegations cited could be found by MEE.

Meanwhile, without any reference or link to the "Turkish reports" cited, the Times also published a similar story earlier this week in which the newspaper alleged that Hamas "has worn out its welcome in Turkey," and that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan received Israel's message and was now pursuing the movement's operatives.

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"All a bunch of allegations without any proof. Which reports are they talking about?" another Turkish official said.

"They just clearly want us to detain poor Palestinian university students," the official added, in reference to claims in the Times that Hamas recruited youths in Istanbul's Basaksehir district through so-called charity organisations, later using them to direct attacks in the occupied West Bank.

The Israeli demands conveyed through the media prompted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last week to say Ankara, too, had demands of its own before reaching any reconciliation.

"They should stop issuing permits to build illegal settlements in the West Bank," Cavusoglu said.

"If they don't stop their illegal acts against the Palestinians, it wouldn't be meaningful for us to repair the relationship. Because it would definitely go south whenever they act against [the Palestinians]."

There is no indication that Turkey will drop its support for Hamas any time soon. 

A Turkish source familiar with the issue said that, whenever Israel makes a fuss about the Hamas presence in Turkey, Ankara points out the Israelis sent many of the movement's prisoners there in the first place, among other reasons.

"And then they just apologise and we move on. It is all about the publicity to pressure Turkey," the source said.

Laying groundwork

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel, believes all media reports quoting Israeli officials indicate one thing: Israel is in no rush to repair relations.

"Turkey has to show it is serious in its intentions to open a new page with Israel," she said. "The demand that Turkey should work in a more serious manner to halt Hamas military operations orchestrated on Turkish soil is not new and was raised quite consistently by pro-Israel voices."

She thinks presenting these demands publicly raises the stakes, but on the other hand Ankara denies Israel's charges altogether, so doesn't feel Turkey sees its image being tarnished by them.

The Turkish officials believe, despite Israel's normalisation deals with several Arab countries, including Turkey's rivals the UAE and Bahrain, that Israel is still very much interested in fixing the relationship with Ankara.

'Turkey has to show it is serious in its intentions to open a new page with Israel'

- Gallia Lindenstrauss, analyst

"Turkey is a heavyweight, one of the serious regional powerhouses. Of course they want to talk," the second official said. "They are making these demands publicly to ready the Biden administration, which could push both countries to reconcile."

Israel's embassy in Ankara has declined MEE's requests to comment.

Ankara finds the latest appointment of Irit Lillian as the head of the Israeli embassy in Turkey as a positive sign, as she has served as an ambassador to Bulgaria and is an expert on Turkey.

One Washington-based source said there are Israeli officials who are supportive of repairing the relations with Turkey, and there are the hawks.

"It is important to understand this: who are leaking these stories which create more impediments?" the source said. "Hawks or doves?" 

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