The arrest and interrogation of Muhammad Murtaja, the manager of the Gaza branch of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), should set off alarm bells in Israel.
Murtaja was arrested last month on suspicion that he was working on behalf of Hamas, the Shin Bet announced on Tuesday. The 40-year-old Murtaja was arrested as he attempted to travel from Gaza to Turkey.
The arrest exposes deep ties between Hamas and organizations in Turkey, which is of particular concern as Jerusalem and Ankara have just restored relations after years of acrimony.
According to the indictment, there is a deep suspicion that someone residing in Turkey not only sought to use Murtaja to transfer money to the Hamas terror group, but also to give the organization’s military wing sensitive military intelligence concerning Israel.
Most of the indictment focuses on the blatant way in which Murtaja and his associates from Hamas’ military wing, the Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, shamelessly sought to profit from aid that was meant to go to impoverished residents of the Gaza Strip.
Murtaja’s first scheme involved food packages bought with money given to him by TIKA which were supposed to be distributed to needy families in Gaza. He instead handed over some 7,000 of these 14,000 packages to Hamas operatives.
In another instance he gave the Turkish organization the names of 8,000 fictional families. The money meant to feed them instead went to purchase food for Hamas.
On the boxes of the food packages was a sticker on which it was written in English “a gift from the Turkish people to the Palestinians.” In some cases, members of Hamas’s military wing removed the stickers and then sold the food at inflated prices back to Gaza residents.
This is definitely not the first case of its kind.
After Qatar financed the construction of thousands of new housing units in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis for families who lost their homes in the 2014 Gaza war, the apartments were ostensibly given to the families for free, although Hamas demanded a “connection fee” to the electricity and water lines amounting to thousands of shekels from each family.
However, the bigger problem from Israel’s perspective is buried in the smaller print of the indictment — Murtaja’s mission to obtain satellite pictures in Turkey of sensitive military sites in Israel. These were intended to be used by Hamas to improve the targeting accuracy of its rocket arsenal in its next war with Israel.
Murtaja, who has been a member of Hamas’ military wing since 2008, studied structural engineering in Turkey. He speaks Turkish fluently and lives in the middle of Gaza City, and for years was a member of the “Shati Brigade” in Hamas’s military wing.
Most likely due to his Turkish language skills, Murtaja was selected to work at TIKA on behalf of the Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades. Before that he worked with the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, known by its Turkish acronym IHH.
IHH, which Israel officially considers to be a terrorist organization, was behind the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla, in which nine activists were killed after attacking Israeli commandos who boarded their ship as they tried to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Among his different roles with the groups, Murtaja served as a translator for Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Ismail Radwan during their meetings with officials from the Turkish organizations.
Murtaja himself, according to his testimony, was present at a number of meetings in which suitcases stuffed with cashed were handed over to senior Hamas officials by employees from TIKA and IHH.
According to Murtaja, he was eventually approached by members of the Hamas branch for research and development, who explained to him that the terror group was seeking to improve the accuracy of its rockets and wanted to acquire more accurate satellite imagery rather than rely on Google Maps. Murtaja was told that the source for such advanced maps was Turkey and he promised to use his contacts there in order to try to obtain them.
Murtaja first turned to an associate of his at IHH, Yatim Yamaz, who promised Murtaja he would do everything possible to get the maps.
Despite the dangers he knew were involved in leaving Gaza for Israel on his way to Turkey, Murtaja decided to go ahead with the trip anyway.
This was most likely on the assumption that his Turkish partner would be able make good on his word that he had connections to Turkish intelligence. Otherwise he would not have implored Murtaja to make the journey to Turkey, expecting him to return to Gaza with information that would have endangered the lives of many Israelis.