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Turkey Recap / What comes next for Hamas members in Turkey?

Over the last decade, the far western suburbs of İstanbul have begun to resemble a safe haven for diverse foreign communities, including a new Afghan diaspora, long-time Syrian refugees and exiled members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Among them are also several senior figures of Hamas, the Islamist militant party governing Gaza which the US, EU and Israel designate as a terrorist group, but Turkey does not.

Following the group’s Oct. 7 surprise attack and amid Israel’s bombing campaign with prospects for a “long and difficult war” as stated by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the presence of Hamas members in Turkey will likely come under increasing scrutiny.

While the Israeli government is expected to press Ankara to stop hosting Hamas figures, Israel’s mounting military response and the images of human suffering it will produce, have already and will continue to stir Turkish public sentiments, which are by a large majority pro-Palestine.

This trend, and a threatened ground operation in Gaza, will put counter-pressure on Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not to heed future Israeli requests, placing recent progress on restoring bilateral ties at risk, analysts told Turkey recap.

“There are still a significant number of lower-level Hamas people in overt Hamas offices in Turkey,” said Matthew Levitt, Fromer-Wexler fellow and director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute.

“Turkey sees these people as members of the political wing of Hamas and, therefore, legitimate,” Levitt continued. “But this just feeds into the myth that there are distinct wings between Hamas, which is not true.” 

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Faced with Israeli blockades since 2007, Hamas relies on a host of nations and organisations for support, including Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Turkish officials claim their role is mainly political, with Erdoğan hosting former Hamas head Khaled Mashaal shortly after the group won elections in 2006, immediately raising questions about Ankara's stance on Israeli politics.

Over time, Ankara was accused of funding Hamas by diverting aid from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. In 2020, an Israeli diplomat also claimed Turkey had given passports to a dozen Hamas members.

Sympathy for the Palestinian cause got a boost under the leadership of former Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoğlu, according to Karel Valansi, an author and political columnist at Turkey's Şalom newspaper and T24.

"Although Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan aimed to increase Ankara's ties with Hamas and deteriorate Turkish-Israeli ties, it was not until the Davutoğlu era in foreign policy under the AKP rule that this goal materialised," Valansi told Turkey recap, referring to Davutoğlu's 2009-2014 tenure as foreign minister, when he pushed for a more active Turkey in regional developments.

Through this period, Israel-turkey stains grew, most memorably through Erdoğan's "one minute" speech and the Mavi Marmara incident, but economic and security relations continued. Attempts at normalising ties also persisted with repeated Israeli appeals requesting the deportation of Hamas officials from Turkey.

Eventually, in 2015, Ankara expelled Saleh AL-Arouri, an exiled senior Hamas leader, who "no question" was orchestrating attacks from turkey, according to Levitt. "This was, I think, the largest sticking point from the Israeli side in Israeli-Turkish reconciliation," Lewitt told Turkey recap.

Bilateral relations eventually improved, Ankara and Israel exchanged ambassadors in 2022, but parallel negotiations for Ankara to expel other Hamas members broke down the same year, with then-FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reiterating Ankara's stance as the reasoning: "We do not see Hamas as a terrorist organization."

Al-Arouri still visits Turkey occasionally and is seen at events, Israeli Ambassador to turkey Irit Lillian told Reuters, adding "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."

Present Day

This brings us to the present day, which places the Turkish government in a bind between previous regional rapprochement efforts and looming fallout from the Israel-Hamas war, all while former Hamas leader Marshal can meet freely with the group's current head, Ismail Haniyeh, in a guarded hotel suite in Küçükçekmece.

"Turkey's role as a mediator in regional conflicts is consistent with the balanced foreign policy it has been pursuing recently," Valansi said. "Erdoğan's direct access to Hamas leadership is another positive attribute."

She continued, "However, the fact that Turkey does not recognise Hamas as a terrorist organization and mistrust already exists between Israel and Turkey may jeopardise any initiative Ankara wishes to take on this issue."

Full story: https://turkeyrecap.substack.com/p/what-comes-next-for-hamas-members


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