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Erdoğan to address pro-Palestinian rally on eve of Turkey’s centenary

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will on Saturday join what is expected to be one of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies since the Israel-Hamas war began, courting his Islamist political base a day ahead of the centenary of Turkey’s secular republic, Reuters reported.

Political analysts said his planned address in İstanbul aimed to reinforce his growing criticism of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip and to overshadow Sunday’s celebrations marking Turkey’s secular roots.

Turkey has condemned Israeli civilian deaths caused by Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage through southern Israel, but Erdoğan this week called the militant group Palestinian “freedom fighters.”

He also criticized some Western nations’ unconditional support for Jerusalem, drawing sharp rebukes from Italy and Israel.

Unlike many NATO allies, the European Union and some Gulf states, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization. It has long hosted the Islamist group’s members, supports a two-state solution and has offered to play a role in negotiating the release of hostages abducted during the Oct. 7 assault.

Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and director of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, an İstanbul-based think tank, told Reuters Gaza’s worsening humanitarian crisis and pressure from political allies had prompted Erdoğan to sharpen his rhetoric.

Turkey “will protect its principles and share these with the international community, but it needs to do this with a more delicate diplomacy if it expects to play such a [future] diplomatic role,” Reuters quoted Ülgen as saying.

The heads of Erdoğan-allied nationalist and Islamist parties — which helped him secure victory in tight May elections — are expected to attend the rally at İstanbul’s old airport. Some Turkish media reported several Arab leaders were also invited.

Atatürk’s legacy

This week Erdoğan invited all Turks to attend the rally where he said “only our flag and the Palestine flag will wave.” His Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) predicted more than a million people would come.

Modern Turkey’s 100th anniversary comes on Sunday, when newspaper headlines could be dominated by news of the Saturday rally rather than celebrations of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, analysts say.

Erdoğan, Turkey’s longest-serving leader, and his Islamist-rooted AKP have eroded support for the Western-facing ideals of Atatürk, whom most Turks revere. In recent years, Erdoğan’s portraits have emerged alongside those of Atatürk on government buildings and schools.

“The symbolism is clear, and no one in Turkey is unaware of it — that the pro-Palestinian rally is likely to overshadow celebrations for the centennial of the secular republic,” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, visiting fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

She said that while Erdoğan’s comments about Hamas reflected Ankara’s long-held position, he aimed to benefit from anti-Israel sentiment domestically and “consolidate Turkey’s Sunni conservatives.”

The government has said the Israel-Hamas conflict will not curb celebrations of the 100th anniversary, for which it has organized events across the country.

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