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Hamas-AKP relations under the spotlight as conflict escalates after attack on Israel

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Relations between Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Islamist group Hamas have once again come under the spotlight following Saturday’s attack on Israel.

On Saturday Hamas fighters had carried out an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel, launching thousands of rockets from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and crossing the border with hundreds of militants.  The Islamist group killed 700 Israelis and abducted dozens, prompting Israel to retaliate by pounding Gaza.

Hours after the attack, Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said the country was at war. The Israeli military said it had called up an unprecedented 300,000 reservists and was imposing a total blockade of the Gaza Strip, signs it could be planning a ground assault there to defeat Hamas.

The conflict comes at a time when Turkey, which has supported the Palestinians in the past, hosted members of Hamas and backed a two-state solution to the conflict, is trying to improve relations with Israel after years of animosity.

Canada, the European Union, Israel, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States label Hamas as a terrorist organization. New Zealand and Paraguay classify only its military wing as such. Brazil, China, Egypt, Iran, Norway, Qatar, Russia, Syria and Turkey do not consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

NATO member Turkey’s Western allies have time and again criticized what they see as the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan providing a safe haven for Hamas officials and members.

Jonathan Schanzer, a terror finance analyst who previously worked for the US Department of Treasury, criticized Secretary of State Antony Blinken for engaging in talks with Turkey’s former spy chief and current foreign minister Hakan Fidan, who Schanzer claimed “presided over the establishment of a Hamas headquarters in Turkey that included an active terrorist commander directing attacks in the West Bank, Saleh al-Arouri.”

Saleh al-Arouri is one of the leaders of Hamas and the founding commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military. He is considered “the military commander of the West Bank.”

“Arouri yesterday boasted about the capture of dozens of Israeli civilians. He continues to travel in and out of Turkey. Arouri has also established rocket teams and arsenals in Lebanon to draw Israel into an another front,” Schanzer said, adding that Turkey has not turned him over despite a reward for “useful information” offered by the US State Department.

Arouri’s presence in Turkey was also brought up by Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Irit Lillian on Sunday.

Asked about the presence of Hamas members in Turkey, Lillian said Arouri is sometimes seen at events in Turkey, adding that he should be tried for crimes against humanity.

“I think it just strengthens our point that Hamas should not have an office or any kind of activity, neither in Turkey nor anywhere else in the world,” she said. “There is no place for terrorists to direct or command acts from any country in the world.”

According to a report in March by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a DC-based nonpartisan research institute, citing Israel’s internal security agency, Hamas operatives in Turkey are recruiting Palestinians to carry out attacks in Israel. According to the FDD the arrests of four Palestinian students who said they were recruited in Turkey by Hamas signal that the Islamist group continues to enjoy operational freedom in Turkey despite Israeli diplomatic efforts to have the group ousted from the country.

Another FDD report pointed to Israel’s interception of explosive materials originating from Turkey on their way to Gaza.

On Sept. 14 Israeli authorities revealed that they had intercepted 16 tons of explosive material on its way from Turkey to the Gaza Strip in July.

According to the Israeli Tax Authority spokesperson, customs agents in Ashdod inspected two containers that were supposed to contain 54 tons of gypsum — the key ingredient in plaster. After testing the material in a lab, authorities concluded that some of the bags contained ammonium chloride — a dual-use chemical used in making rockets.

“The seizure of 16 tons of raw materials, intended to be used by Hamas for the construction of rockets, once again underscores Turkey’s insincere commitment to antiterrorism. On the one hand, Ankara declares its desire to ‘normalize’ ties with Israel, while on the other, it continues to support a major terrorist entity that is focused on undermining the very existence of Israel. Erdogan’s government remains a primary source of support for Hamas and other jihadist entities throughout the region.” FDD Non-Resident Senior Fellow Sinan Ciddi said.

According to the FDD, Turkey’s support for Hamas is not limited to Arouri’s presence. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh lives part-time in Turkey, and he and his son hold Turkish passports.

In July of this year, President Erdoğan, who often uses pro-Palestinian rhetoric, held a closed-door meeting with Haniyeh at his office in Ankara , along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

After Saturday’s attack Erdoğan urged restraint and offered mediation, which was deemed “too early” by Israeli authorities.

After several years of tension between the two countries, relations between Turkey and Israel have improved over the past year, with several high-level visits, including that of Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

Relations were strained in 2010 after Israeli forces launched a deadly assault on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to deliver aid to the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory under Israeli blockade and controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.

In May 2018, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv and expelled Israel’s ambassador in Ankara after some 50 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army in Gaza.

Israel retaliated by expelling the Turkish consul general in Jerusalem.

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