AnalysisTurks believe Hamas fights a defensive war against Israel

To punish Israel for Gaza war, Turkey’s citizens will gladly suffer the economic cost

Political pressure forced Turkey’s hardline leader Erdogan to reluctantly halt the export of 54 products to the Jewish state – but much of the public still thinks that’s not enough

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters in Istanbul, Turkey, April 5, 2024. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters in Istanbul, Turkey, April 5, 2024. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

ISTANBUL — On April 9, the Turkish government launched a bevy of trade restrictions on Israel, the stated aim of which was to penalize the Jewish state for the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip and the resulting humanitarian crisis there.

Though Turkey is close to recession and continues to suffer from the runaway inflation that has plagued it for years, the overwhelmingly conservative Turkish public didn’t just support starting a trade war with Israel — it demanded it.

The restrictions against Israel came just days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major defeat in local elections for the first time since 1977, with Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir electing mayors from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) party.

Opposition parties from the right and the left alike have long played on Turks’ keen support of Muslim coreligionists in Gaza, criticizing Erdogan’s government for its continued trade with Israel during the war. The government and media consistently have presented the war as a defensive one for Hamas.

While the Turkish public is aware that the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, the largely government-influenced national media has downplayed the Hamas atrocities that sparked the conflict to such an extent that the majority of the public is unaware that they occurred.

Instead, most people believe that Israel unilaterally attacked Gaza, and Erdogan, who has described Hamas as holy warriors fending off an Israeli offensive, feeds this misconception.

Then-Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) addresses supporters outside the City Hall in Istanbul, Turkey, April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

On October 7, thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The majority of those killed were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and many additional victims — including 360 at the Supernova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im — were also slaughtered amid horrific acts of brutality.

Public opinion in Turkey has not been kind to any implication of culpability on the part of Hamas — no matter how slight.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 14, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

On February 27, Ozgur Ozel, president of the secular CHP — which leads Turkey’s opposition with the second-most parliamentary seats after Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party — described the October 7 atrocities as a terror attack that sparked a “disproportionate” response from Israel.

He was subsequently lambasted in the Turkish media for his “scandalous” statement. The party has since refrained from mentioning Hamas altogether, choosing instead to focus on Gaza’s civilian casualties.

Republican People’s Party chairman Ozgur Ozel speaks to journalists during an anti-censorship demonstration in front of the Constitutional Court in Ankara on November 8, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Self-destructive but popular

The Turkish drive to punish Israel with economic sanctions has not changed even as global opinion has appeared to once again favor the Jewish state following an Iranian drone and missile attack on April 13. Likewise, there hasn’t been significant concern about retaliatory sanctions being imposed against Turkey by the United States and Israel.

The Jewish state was the 13th-largest receiver of Turkish exports in 2023, and trade between the two countries totaled $5.42 billion, according to the Turkish Exporters’ Union and statistics agency Turkstat.

On April 15, human rights activist and lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish People’s Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu called to take the trade restrictions a step further and institute a complete ban on trade with Israel.

Currently, the restrictions prevent the exportation of 54 products to Israel.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protestors in Istanbul, Turkey, April 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

CHP’s Ozel also criticized the government’s continued business with Israel throughout the war, saying that “trade with Israel is a betrayal of Palestine.”

Doing business with the Jewish state has also become fodder for accusations and witch hunts.

Journalist Metin Cihan claimed incorrectly on April 7 that a company owned by Hilmi Durgun, deputy head of the National Action Party (MHP) in Antalya, was in fact the Turkish branch of the Israeli multinational agriculture corporation Haifa Group.

Durgun vehemently denied the claim, saying that his company, Agrosel Tarim, merely purchased raw materials to produce fertilizer from the Haifa Group, which he called the world’s leading producer and supplier of such products.

The MHP generally maintains that Israel is responsible for the war in Gaza, and party leader Devlet Bahceli has called the IDF operations there “inhumane.”

An anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian protest rally in Istanbul, Turkey, February 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The Turkish opposition party that openly took the strongest stance against Hamas was the Good Party (IYI), whose leader Meral Aksener targeted Erdogan’s support for Hamas while criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at her party’s national conference in November.

“Hamas’s massacre of civilians obscured Palestine’s rights under international law and served Netanyahu’s dirty agenda, thus inflicting the biggest blow on the Palestinian people,” she said.

Somewhat differing views

While the Turkish public isn’t entirely undivided about the nuances of restricting trade with Israel, it’s widely taken for granted that the Erdogan government’s current restrictions are inadequate — especially when viewed in light of the Palestinian death toll.

This may reflect the effects of Erdogan’s Islamist policies in Turkey and a belief in the Muslim world’s collective responsibility for the well-being of coreligionists. Alongside this is the conviction many conservatives hold that Turkey’s rightful place is at the forefront of any initiative to aid its fellow Muslims — one that likely stems from residual feelings of imperialism and the belief that despite being officially secular, the modern Republic of Turkey is the heir of the Ottoman Caliphate.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech against the backdrop of a graphic that inaccurately portrays ‘growing’ Israeli and ‘shrinking’ Palestinian territories, at the opening ceremony of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Antalya, Turkey, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The Times of Israel interviewed a number of private citizens who voiced divergent opinions about the trade restrictions, but all of whom requested that their surnames be withheld due to the sensitivity of the topic.

A journalist named Humeyra believes that while Hamas’s October 7 atrocities were wrong, they were a result of Israel’s longstanding policies. She holds both Israel and Hamas responsible for civilian deaths. She supports Erdogan’s decision to impose restrictions on trade with Israel.

“Until now, the government was only responding verbally to Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians, which have increased over the last six months. The Turkish people have taken to the streets many times to support the Palestinians since the first day,” Humeyra said. “I think restricting trade was a late but correct decision.”

Haluk is concerned about a flood of Gazan refugees if Turkey becomes overly involved in the Israel-Hamas conflict. (Courtesy)

A sizable minority of Turks, however, prefer an isolationist approach this time around, after millions of Syrian refugees flooded into Turkey following the country’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Haluk, who works in tourism, complains about uncontrolled migration to Istanbul and says that the only role Turkey should play in Gaza is to provide humanitarian aid, worrying that any further involvement risks getting the country mired in another refugee crisis.

“This situation with the refugees has caused serious problems, both economic and sociological,” Haluk said. “If we do anything to create a new wave of migration, it’s just going to cause even more serious economic problems.”

And then there are those who believe that Turkey and Israel share common interests.

Usame, a communications and media major at Istanbul University, believes that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have just cause to harm innocent civilians. He also believes that Turkish and Israeli interests are not diametrically opposed.

“I don’t think most people really understand what happened on October 7 with the attack launched by Hamas, and I think the media and many politicians are responsible for this,” said Usame. “Turkey and Israel both want to see a democratic Middle East — but first, the war in Gaza needs to end.”

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