The Israeli attack on Gaza struck at a time when Turkey had been working to improve its relations with Israel, with which it had restored full diplomatic relations in August 2022. But tensions between the two countries have been rising steadily since 7 October.
It was bad enough, from the Israeli perspective, when on 10 October President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that it was an “incorrect approach” to blame Hamas exclusively for what happened that day. Fifteen days later he went further, explicitly refusing to call Hamas a terrorist organisation, instead describing it as “a liberation and mujahideen group fighting to protect its territory and its citizens.”
Turkey initially tried to take a balanced approach to the events following Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Flood Operation. It offered to mediate between the two sides and called for a ceasefire and a return to negotiations based on the two-state solution. However, as the Israeli offensive escalated and the Israeli armed forces intensified their bombardment of civilian infrastructure, causing thousands of casualties, Ankara could no longer contain itself.
Addressing a Justice and Development Party (AKP) group meeting on 25 October, Erdogan said: “Almost half of those killed in Israel’s attacks on Gaza are children, while the other half are their mothers and grandparents. This alone is enough to tell you that the aim is not self-defence, but an atrocity aimed at committing crimes against humanity.”
The following day, he lashed out at Israel’s Western backers. Once again condemning Israel for the “brutal massacre” unfolding in Gaza since 7 October, he slammed the European Union for failing to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and accused the West of indifference to the suffering of Muslims.
In a televised speech on 26 October he asked, “is it possible to look at Gaza and remain unresponsive? No action justifies such brutality. The sad part is that uncivilised people who pretend to be civil just sit back and watch, and the EU Commission says, ‘We can’t call for a ceasefire yet.’… All Western countries provide unconditional support for the assaults. The self-appointed judges on human rights have been ignoring Gaza’s right to life for 19 days… How many more children must die before the EU Commission calls for a ceasefire? How many more tons of bombs must fall on Gaza before the United Nations Security Council can take action?”
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan has echoed Erdogan’s denunciation of the West’s blind support for Israel and of Western hypocrisy. On 20 October, he harshly criticised President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel that week, saying that it amounted to a US endorsement of the destruction of Gaza. “History is watching,” he warned.
If sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza runs high among the Turkish public, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) naturally saw the political capital to be gained from channelling the public mood. On 28 October, the AKP organised a Great Palestine Rally at Ataturk Airport to support Palestine and protest Israeli actions in Gaza.
Thousands attended the event in which Erdogan spoke, pitching his words to this audience but undoubtedly aware that this was fuelling mounting tensions with Israel. Referring to Israel as an “occupier,” he said, “Israel was very upset when I said that Hamas was not a terrorist organisation. Only God is victorious. We not only condemn the massacre in Gaza, we defend our own independence and future.”
Previously, on 14 October, a pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul drew thousands of people who chanted slogans criticising Israel and the US. It was attended by many leading members of the ruling party, including the former speaker of the Turkish Parliament Mustafa Sentop, former interior minister Süleyman Soylu, and the Turkish president’s son, Bilal Erdogan, chairman of the board of trustees of the Foundation for the Dissemination of Knowledge.
In addition to its official statements and its sponsorship of pro-Palestinian demonstrations, Ankara has also refuted what it claims is Israeli disinformation. On 18 October, following the bombing of the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital which killed nearly 500 Palestinian civilians, the Communications Directorate’s Centre for Combatting Disinformation, which falls under the Office of the Presidency, released a statement saying: “The [Israeli] claim that ‘Hamas, not Israel, carried out the attack’ on the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza’s Al-Zaytoun neighbourhood is false.”
Turkey’s official stances on Israel’s actions in Gaza, which Erdogan punctuated with his decision to cancel a previous plan to visit Israel, “because Netanyahu had taken advantage of Turkey’s “good intentions,” elicited an angry response from Tel Aviv. On Saturday 28 October, the Israeli government announced that it would reassess its diplomatic relations with Turkey and withdraw its diplomats from the country. The renewed frigidity between Turkey and Israel will undoubtedly impact areas of bilateral cooperation, especially in energy. For some time, the two sides had been discussing the construction of a pipeline to transport Israeli natural gas through Turkey to Europe.
In addition, economic cooperation between Turkey and Israel is likely to slump in the coming period, despite the recent expansion in cooperation. The volume of trade between the two countries has risen to $6 billion in recent months, according to the Israeli Chamber of Commerce. At the outset of 2023, the Turkish ambassador to Israel had predicted that the volume of trade would soon reach $15 billion.
Turkey has been projecting itself as an impartial mediator in international conflicts, such as Ukraine. However, its hope to do so in the Gaza conflict is more remote than ever in view of its recent rhetoric. Israel has sharply criticised Turkey’s relations with Hamas too, demanding that Ankara expel Hamas officials from Turkey.
Tensions between Ankara and Israel will also aggravate longstanding difficulties between Turkey and Western countries. This applies above all to its relations with Israel’s main backer, the US, which has been pressuring countries around the world to label Hamas a terrorist organisation. Erdogan’s description of Hamas as a resistance movement in a struggle against an occupation power openly defies the Biden White House’s view of Hamas as an “absolute evil.”
The ratcheting up in Turkish rhetoric on the situation in Gaza from an initial attempt at neutrality to the unreserved condemnation of Israeli practices and refusal to justify the disproportionate civilian casualty toll in Gaza in the name of “self-defence” has severely strained Ankara’s relations with Tel Aviv.
However, even despite the recent Israeli withdrawal of its diplomatic staff in Turkey, the deterioration is unlikely to return to the nadir of 2010 following the Mavi Marmara incident. A substantial realm of common interests between the two countries has evolved, especially in economic and security areas.
Moreover, Erdogan has continued to temper his rhetoric with offers to support efforts to promote a peaceful settlement of the Gaza crisis.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly