The authoritarian Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long played host to leaders of Hamas, is now allowing the terror group’s operatives to plot terror attacks while on Turkish soil, a report said late Tuesday.
According to the British daily The Telegraph, citing Israeli police sources and offering a wealth of details, recent interrogations of terror suspects by Israeli officials revealed that Hamas operations in Jerusalem and the West Bank are being actively directed from Istanbul, while Turkish authorities turn a blind eye.
One such operation cited by the paper was a plot to assassinate senior Israeli officials, including the mayor of Jerusalem and the national police commissioner, by 23-year-old East Jerusalem resident Adham Muselmani, who was recruited to the cause in a meeting in Istanbul.
The report comes shortly after Erdogan hosted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul on Saturday, telling him, “We will keep on supporting our brothers in Palestine.”
Hamas in turn praised Turkey for its “positions vis-a-vis the Palestinian people and its just cause” in a news report on its website.
Israel has long complained to Ankara about its ties to Hamas, but to no avail, according to the report. Israeli officials told The Telegraph that Turkey has now reneged on its 2015 commitment, negotiated by the US, not to allow Hamas officials to plot terror attacks against the Jewish state from its territory.
“Israel is extremely concerned that Turkey is allowing Hamas terrorists to operate from its territory, in planning and engaging in terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians,” the paper quoted Israel’s Foreign Ministry as saying.
According to the paper, Muselmani, who was arrested by the Shin Bet while trying to purchase a pistol, had met with a handler in Istanbul, who suggested he try to kill then Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, then-MK and Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick, or then-police chief Roni Alsheich.
The handler, senior Hamas operative Zacharia Najib, who was released by Israel as part of a 2011 deal that freed IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, offered another person weapons training in Istanbul for an attack in Israel.
The Telegraph also described police transcripts that included a Palestinian imam meeting in Istanbul with Hamas operative Hisham Hijaz in Istanbul, another Shalit deal releasee. Hijaz offered $20,000 in the meeting to the family of anyone who carried out a suicide bombing in Israel.
The paper noted that contacts between Turkish and Hamas officials are ongoing and intimate, with Turkish intelligence agency MIT working closely with the main conduit for the relationship, Hamas official Jihad Ya’amor.
Turkey has long maintained warm ties with Hamas, which have grown more overt as ties with Israel have chilled over the last decade.
Hamas and Erdogan’s AKP party are linked politically. Both have close ideological ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Since coming to power as prime minister in 2003, Erdogan has led a slow but steady realignment of Turkey’s alliances away from its longstanding strategic links to Israel and the West, and asserted a growing leadership role in the Muslim Middle East. It has backed Hamas in intra-Palestinian disputes with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and funded groups in Jerusalem that have organized violence on and around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Despite tensions with Washington over Turkey’s purchase of Russian arms, Erdogan maintains close ties with US President Donald Trump, whose administration on Tuesday declined to back the Senate’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, in what was seen as a bid to placate Ankara.
Hamas’s deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, the paper noted, “travels freely to the country without fear of arrest,” despite a $5 million US bounty on his head for terrorism charges. And he’s not alone. At least 11 Hamas figures “who have left [Gaza] in the last year, according to a list compiled by Israeli intelligence and Egyptian border authorities” are known to have relocated to Istanbul.
Among them are Abdel Rahman Ghanimat, former head of the Surif cell that carried out deadly suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in the 1990s.
Another man named Nahad Abu Kishk deleted his Facebook account after being contacted by the paper, though posts from his wife “show the family was living in Gaza in 2018 before moving to Turkey earlier this year,” according to the Telegraph.
Both Turkey and Hamas denied the Tuesday report. A Turkish diplomatic official said Hamas was “not a terrorist organization” and insisted no attacks were being planned from Turkey.
Hamas called the Israeli complaints “baseless allegations that aim to negatively affect Hamas’ relationship with Turkey.”
Spokesman Hazem Qasem said “Hamas’s resistance activities are conducted only in the land of occupied Palestine.”
Haniyeh is currently making his first major trip outside Gaza and Egypt since 2017. On Monday, he traveled to Doha to meet with Qatar’s emir, along with Arouri and other Hamas officials.
The Hamas leader spent much of last week in Turkey, where talks were focused on “the difficult humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip in light of the ongoing siege and the necessary measures to end [it],” a Hamas media outlet reported this week.
Israel maintains restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israel officials argue that the limitations seek to prevent terror groups in the coastal enclave from importing weapons or the means to build them.
For the most of the last decade, Egypt also imposed heavy restrictions on the movement of people and goods. More recently, however, Egyptian authorities have permitted many Palestinians in Gaza to travel through the Rafah crossing and import some goods by way of its borders.
Fifty-three percent of Palestinians in Gaza live in poverty, a June 2018 United Nations report said. Eighty percent depend on international aid, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency, the main international organization that provides health, education and other services to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007 when it ousted the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority from the territory in a bloody coup.
In a Saturday meeting with Erdogan, the Hamas delegation discussed “the issue of Jerusalem, especially including the imminent dangers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Turkey’s role in supporting the Palestinian people,” the Hamas media outlet said.
Hamas has consistently condemned Israel for allowing Jews to visit the Temple Mount, a site revered in Judaism as the holiest place on Earth and the seat of the ancient temples, and in Islam as the site where the prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven. Muslims refer to it as Haram el-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.
The terror group has also accused Israel of attempting to “Judaize” the Temple Mount, which is largely administered by the Waqf, a Jordanian-supported institution that manages Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
Jews are barred from praying at the Temple Mount under longstanding arrangements between Israel and Muslim authorities in place since 1967. But in recent years Israeli religious nationalists have stepped up visits to the site and made efforts to pray there.
The Palestinians view such visits as provocations, and have expressed concerns that Israel intends to take over the site or partition it. The Israeli government, however, has repeatedly said it has no intention of changing the longstanding arrangements.
Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV reported Sunday that Haniyeh will be attending the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on Wednesday. The conference will “delve into seeking new solutions for problems affecting the Islamic world,” the Malay Mail, a Malaysian daily, reported.
Agencies contributed to this report.