Israel on Monday issued its most severe travel warning for the Turkish city of Istanbul, over attempts by Iran to attack Israeli travelers.
The National Security Council said it raised the warning level to 4, the highest, where Israelis are explicitly told not to visit an area and to leave if they are already inside. Countries with the level-4 “high threat” warning include Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iran.
The authority said it raised the warning level amid “the continuing threat and amid the escalation of Iranian intentions to harm Israelis in Turkey, with an emphasis on Istanbul.” Other parts of Turkey remained at a level 3 warning, with recommendations to avoid visiting the country for nonessential reasons.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called on Israelis in Turkey to return immediately and for citizens to cancel travel plans to the country.
“If you are already in Istanbul, return to Israel as soon as possible,” he said. “If you planned a trip to Istanbul — cancel it. No vacation is worth risking your lives for.”
Lapid’s instruction at the beginning of a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party came after reports on Sunday said Israeli and Turkish security agencies had foiled an Iranian plot to kidnap Israeli tourists in Turkey last month.
“Israeli security organizations, the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office — we have all been part of a massive effort in recent weeks that saved Israeli lives,” Lapid said. “Some of them came back to Israel and are walking among us without even knowing that their lives were spared.”
He said that Iranian agents were still seeking to murder or kidnap Israelis, calling the threat “real and immediate.”
The foreign minister went on to thank the Turkish government for its efforts to protect Israelis in the country.
“Tourism to Turkey is important for both countries, but they also understand that there are risks that must not be taken,” Lapid said. He then warned that Israel would retaliate if Iran succeeded in hurting Israelis.
While travel warnings are not generally issued during party meetings, a spokesperson for Lapid told The Times of Israel that it had been coordinated with all the relevant ministries, and that it simply happened to be the forum at which Lapid was speaking Monday.
According to Hebrew media reports on Sunday, Israeli and Turkish security agencies last month uncovered an Iranian plot to kidnap Israeli tourists in Turkey and foiled it in the nick of time.
Israeli security officials reportedly tipped off their Turkish counterparts about the plan and asked that they take action to thwart the attack. The reports, citing unnamed senior Israeli sources, did not specify the nationality of the alleged agents for Iran, how many were involved, or if any arrests had been made.
Israel’s Channel 12 news said Monday evening that “there are still Iranian cells in the area” and “ongoing cooperation between the Mossad and the Turkish [security agencies], impressive cooperation, to thwart this series of [potential] attacks.” The unsourced report also said there had been an unspecified number of arrests.”
The National Security Council revised its travel warning for Turkey last month to level three of four, saying there was a concrete threat to Israelis from “Iranian terrorist operatives” there and in nearby countries.
That warning followed the assassination of a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, which Iran blamed on Israel.
Khodaei was shot five times in his car by two unidentified gunmen on motorbikes in the middle of Tehran on May 22. He reportedly was involved in killings and abductions outside of Iran, including attempts to target Israelis.
While Israeli diplomatic missions have been on alert, expecting Iran to seek revenge for the assassination, Kan reported that the attempted Iranian action in Turkey took place before the officer’s killing.
Shortly before Lapid delivered his remarks on Monday, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said that any “response” the Islamic Republic would make against Israel would take place inside Israel.
“If we will want to respond to Israel’s activities, our answer will be given in its place and not in a third country,” Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi told the semi-official Iranian Tasnim news agency on Monday that Iran “will take whatever retaliatory measure necessary in response to any external action by [the Israeli] regime.”
Since Khodaei was killed, another officer in the Quds Force — which oversees the IRGC’s overseas operations — has died in unclear circumstances, as have an engineer at a military site and a scientist who was reportedly involved in developing missiles and drones.
According to Channel 12, Israel believes the Iranians have an increased motivation to launch attacks on Israeli targets at the moment, with the IRGC seeking to restore deterrence both within its borders and overseas.