Is Turkey changing strategy by giving citizenship to Hamas members?

August 28, 2020
by Servet Akman, published on 28 August 2020
Is Turkey changing strategy by giving citizenship to Hamas members?

Last week, The Telegraph reported that Turkey gave citizenship to a dozen of Hamas members. The allegations were serious and addressed to the government by Ünal Çeviköz, MP from the main opposition party CHP and former Turkish Ambassador to the UK. In less than a week, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted a Hamas delegation. However, unlike the previous visits, this one prompted an unusual reaction by the US, while Israel sufficed to raise its concerns with the Turkish government at diplomatic level. But why did the US release such a strong statement against Turkey, and is it true that Turkey has given citizenship to Hamas members?

Erdoğan’s approach towards the organization is well-known. He has been supporting the organization since it assumed the administration of Gaza in 2006, claiming that the international community must respect the will of Palestinians. However, his relationship with Hamas has received criticism from the US all the while. Engagement with Hamas elicited fierce objections also from Turkey’s secular-minded elites in the early years of his power. Despite strong opposition, Erdoğan hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in 2006 for the first time, and continued to meet with Hamas members on a frequent basis.

What makes the last visit different than the others is the presence of Saleh al-Arouri - military commander of Hamas for the West Bank - in the delegation. Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the US, and the State Department offered a 5 million dollars reward for information leading to his location. Arouri founded Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, and is accused of orchestrating terrorist attacks and kidnapping of Israelis. Therefore, his meeting with Erdoğan caused infuriation in the US and evoked an undiplomatic reaction against Turkey. Usually the delegation members of Hamas were not revealed to public during the previous meetings, but the Turkish Presidency publicized the entire Hamas delegation this time.

Although concerned gravely about the activities of Hamas in Turkey, Israel appears to have no hope for goodwill and cooperation at the Turkish side. Speaking to Reuters, Charge d’affaires of Israel to Turkey Roey Gilad said that Israel had already told Turkey that Hamas was carrying out “terror-related activity” in Istanbul, but Turkey had not taken action. Gilad also mentioned that Israel had proof that Turkey was providing passports and identity cards to Hamas members, which they would also submit to the Turkish government. Known for his bitter exchange of accusations with Erdoğan, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has not commented on this so far. However, this certainly does not mean that Israel does not pay attention to the activities of Hamas in Turkey. On the contrary, Israel closely follows Hamas activities and arrested several Turkish citizens during their visit to Israel in the past years. Among those who were arrested over their alleged links with Hamas, Cemil Tekeli reportedly admitted that Turkey contributed to military strengthening of Hamas in Turkey via SADAT company, a military training company founded by Erdogan’s advisor and former General Adnan Tanrıverdi.

Israel has also been claiming that many Hamas members fled to Turkey after Shalit prisoner exchange deal in 2011, and that they have been using Istanbul as a base for their operations. Although some of these Hamas members allegedly left Turkey with the normalization of the relations between Turkey and Israel in 2016, it is possible that they returned to Turkey after the relations were strained again in 2018. Considering the requirements for acquisition of Turkish citizenship, such as living in Turkey for five years, speaking Turkish and not presenting a threat to national security, we can assume that there are many Hamas members eligible for Turkish citizenship. Although it is possible that some lenient Hamas members have received citizenships in due course, by giving citizenship to some high level Hamas members Ankara may have wanted to send a message to the US and Israel concerning the recent developments in the Mediterranean and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey and Israel tried hard to build some trust during the normalization of relations in 2016. It was expected that the natural gas resources in the Mediterranean would act as a vector of cooperation. However, the deep distrust soon resurfaced and both parties dismissed their ambassadors. In the meantime, Israel has further enhanced its relations with Greece and Egypt throughout the past decade, and expressed its support to Egypt and Greece in the recent maritime issues. As Charge d’affaires Gilad stated, Israel would not throw away its strategic alliances it has built up with other nations over the last 10 years even if ties with Turkey were to improve. Turkey’s attempt to break the alliance against itself by offering Israel a gas pipeline running from Israeli reservoirs through Turkey into Europe in December 2019 failed due to the lack of trust. Turkey’s contacts with Egypt at intelligence level aiming for a thaw also bore no fruit, leaving Turkey in isolation.

The alliance against Turkey in the Mediterranean, Israel’s peace deal with the UAE and the developments regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have convinced Turkey to take some drastic steps such as giving citizenship to leading Hamas members, or conducting military drills in the Mediterranean. As Ambassador Çeviköz pointed out in his parliamentary question, giving citizenship to Hamas members might very well be related with the fact that Israel supports Egypt and Greece on the maritime issues. However, such an aggressive policy may result in reckless behaviours by the regional actors and further isolation of Turkey just as predicted in the US statement.

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