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Former Mossad deputy denies detainees in Turkey are Israeli spies

MK Ram Ben-Barak, who heads powerful Knesset committee, pushes back against reports in Turkish media

Blurred photos of three the 15 alleged Mossad agents are published by the Turkish Sabah daily. Background: Pro-Palestinian Turkish demonstrators holding Turkish and Palestinian flags take part in a rally to protest in Istanbul, Febuary 9, 2020. (Screenshot: Sabah; AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Blurred photos of three the 15 alleged Mossad agents are published by the Turkish Sabah daily. Background: Pro-Palestinian Turkish demonstrators holding Turkish and Palestinian flags take part in a rally to protest in Istanbul, Febuary 9, 2020. (Screenshot: Sabah; AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

The chairman of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Saturday said none of the 15 men arrested in Turkey earlier this week were Mossad agents, as alleged by Turkish media reports

MK Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of the Mossad intelligence agency, also suggested the Turkish government is eager to show its intelligence “achievements,” resulting in the occasional publication of false information.

“None of the published names were [of] Israeli spies and therefore, it should be put in proportion,” he told Channel 12.

Turkey’s Sabah daily reported on Thursday that 15 men who allegedly spied for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency were arrested by authorities earlier this month.

Sabah, which is close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Friday carried an interview with one of the detainees, whom it identified only by his initials M.A.S.

There has been no official confirmation from Turkey on the arrests and it was not clear how the paper interviewed the man if he had been arrested.

Ram Ben-Barak, leads a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 5, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I met face to face with a Mossad official. He taught me to encrypt files on the laptop,” M.A.S. told Sabah.

The man, who has a company that provided consulting services to students coming from abroad to Istanbul, told the paper that he was tasked with monitoring Palestinians in Turkey. He said he had first been approached by a man claiming to represent an Arab person based in Germany who was interested in studying in Turkey.

Protestors wave Palestinian flags in front of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul on May 15, 2018. (OZAN KOSE/AFP)

The man was initially sent hundreds of euros for providing information on how Palestinian students entered Turkish universities and what kind of support they received from Turkish authorities.

He also later claimed to have provided the client with details on a Palestinian non-governmental organization working in Turkey.

He said he received some $10,000 in exchange for providing information over three years; some of the money was sent via Western Union, and some he was given in an Istanbul market by showing his ID and a receipt.

During this time he was brought to Switzerland to meet with his alleged handlers, receiving a visa sponsored by an organization called the “European Student Guidance Center.”

During his all-expenses-paid visit, he met with two separate men, including one who taught him how to encrypt Word files on Protonmail, an email service with end-to-end encryption. Further contact between the two was made through Protonmail, the paper said.

M.A.S. said that during a second visit to Zurich, he met the two men again and another man named “John.” After becoming suspicious and asking them if they were intelligence agents, they told him they worked for “an intelligence-like organization with the duty of doing research for EU institutions.”

It was not clear when he came to the conclusion that he had been recruited by the Mossad.

According to Thursday’s report, the arrests took place on October 7, following a year-long National Intelligence Organization (MIT) operation involving some 200 Turkish intelligence officers who tracked down the alleged spies.

The suspects, said to be of Arab descent, operated in groups of three, the report said. Some had met with Mossad agents in Croatia and Switzerland, where information was exchanged.

They had also received orders in the Romanian capital of Bucharest and Kenya’s Nairobi, the report claimed.

The five groups had operated in different areas of the country, Sabah reported.

The men had provided the Mossad with information on students who study in the country, some of whom were Turkish citizens and others foreigners, including Palestinians, the report said.

The main targets of the espionage operation were Palestinians in Turkey and facilities that hosted them, Sabah claimed.

According to the paper, MIT also uncovered how the operatives were paid, which included cryptocurrency payments and money transfers from jewelry and currency exchange stores.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Hamas terrorist movement chief Ismail Haniyeh, prior to their meeting in Istanbul, February 1, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

A report last year claimed the Palestinian terror group Hamas was secretly operating a facility in Turkey where it conducted cyberattacks and counterintelligence operations against Israel.

The headquarters, which is separate from Hamas’s official offices in the city, was set up without the knowledge of Turkish authorities, the report said.

The British daily The Telegraph also reported in 2020 that Turkey was granting citizenship to a dozen high-ranking Hamas members involved in coordinating terror attacks. The report was later confirmed by the chargé d’affaires at Israel’s embassy in Ankara.

Turkey sees Hamas as a legitimate political movement. The country has long maintained warm ties with Hamas, which have grown more overt as relations with Israel have chilled over the last decade. Israel has complained to Ankara about its ties to Hamas, but to no avail, according to the report.

In August 2020, Erdogan met with a Hamas delegation that included politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh and the terror group’s No. 2, Saleh al-Arouri — a top military commander who has a $5 million US bounty on his head.

The meeting was harshly condemned by the US State Department at the time, but the Turkish foreign ministry rejected the criticism, accusing Washington of “serving Israel’s interests.”

Hamas and Erdogan’s AKP party are linked politically. Both have close ideological ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement.

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