Détente 'doesn't mean you can act against the Palestinians'

Turkey arrests 7 citizens suspected of spying on Palestinians for Mossad

According to government-aligned newspaper, Turkish private investigators kept tabs on students and expats, giving Israel info needed to launch ‘defamation campaigns’ against them

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Turkish police special forces and ambulances at the site of an armed attack on a nightclub, January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)
Turkish police special forces and ambulances at the site of an armed attack on a nightclub, January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

Turkey arrested several citizens this week suspected of spying on Palestinians in the country at Israel’s behest, according to Turkish media.

The Daily Sabah, a daily closely aligned with the government, reported Wednesday that Turkey’s MIT national intelligence organization and Istanbul police detained 44 individuals, seven of whom were arrested.

The suspects include a university lecturer, and a man with the initials I.Y. who founded an association for Turkish private eyes in 2007, according to the report.

No Israelis were arrested in the affair, which comes as the two nations have been rekindling long-frosty ties.

Authorities have been investigating the suspects — Turkish private detectives — for surveilling Palestinians studying in Turkey, including some in fields related to security and weapons production. The suspects allegedly passed information on to the Mossad intelligence agency.

According to the Daily Sabah, the suspects told Turkish investigators that the information they provided allowed Mossad to launch defamation campaigns online against the Palestinian expats and students.

Protesters from IHH, a Turkish pro-Islamic organization hold a rally outside Israel’s consulate in Istanbul, late Sunday, May 9, 2021, in support of Palestinians in the latest round of violence in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Authorities are still searching for 13 other suspects.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report.

“These are the new ambivalent relations,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey scholar at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “While on the one hand we are seeing Turkish officials posing for the camera next to Israeli officials and flag, at the same time the recent arrests remind me of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s recent statements about not leaving behind the Palestinians.”

Over the past year, Çavuşoğlu, a close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has repeatedly declared that Ankara’s outspoken support for a Palestinian state will not be affected by the warming ties with Israel.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) speaks alongside his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Ankara on June 23, 2022. (Boaz Oppenheim/GPO)

In May 2018, Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked Israel’s to leave to protest of Israel’s response to rioting on the Gaza border, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.

In August of this year, Israel and Turkey announced a full renewal of diplomatic relations. The return of ambassadors “is important to improving bilateral ties,” Çavuşoğlu said at the time, adding: “As we have always said, we will continue to defend the rights of Palestinians.”

“What we see is Turkish authorities safeguarding those Palestinians who are living in Turkey,” Cohen said. “This is a very clear message to Israel, that normalization does not mean that you can act against Palestinians inside Turkish territory.”

A major outstanding point of contention between the two regional powers is the Hamas office in Istanbul, which Ankara insists deals only with political activities. Israel charges that Hamas uses its hub in Turkey to direct terror attacks and has publicly demanded that the office be shuttered.

Israel’s charge d’affaires in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)

“It’s still there, [and] it’s a huge obstacle,” Israel’s Ambassador to Turkey Irit Lillian told The Times of Israel in August.

In October 2021, the Daily Sabah broke a similar story. A series of arrests were carried out following a year-long MIT operation involving some 200 Turkish intelligence officers who tracked down 15 alleged spies for Mossad.

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

MK Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of the Mossad and chairman of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, denied at the time that any of the 15 men were Mossad agents.

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)

Israel was a long-time regional ally of Turkey, before a 2010 IDF commando raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, part of a blockade-busting flotilla, left 10 Turkish activists dead after they attacked Israeli soldiers who boarded the ship.

Despite an official apology by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erdogan went on to accuse the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during Operation Defensive Shield in July 2014.

Despite a moderate improvement in relations, both countries withdrew their ambassadors after Erdogan leveled charges of “state terrorism” and “genocide” at Israel when dozens of Palestinians were killed in Gaza rioting on May 14, 2018, the day former US president Donald Trump controversially moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Amid diplomatic signals indicating Erdogan was seeking détente with Israel, President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara on an official trip in March and was welcomed in the capital by a full military procession.

Erdogan has likely been seeking to thaw relations with Israel to reduce Turkey’s growing political and economic isolation. The Turkish currency has plummeted in recent years, leaving the country in economic turmoil with an election slated for 2023.

Turkish authorities arrest an alleged Iranian cell that sought to target Israelis in Istanbul on June 23, 2022. (Screen capture/CNN Turkey)

Renewed coordination between Israel and Turkey was also on display after security forces from both countries worked together to prevent an Iranian assassination plot on Turkish soil in July. Turkish forces tracked and arrested the Iranian agents as they attempted to kidnap and kill Israeli tourists in Istanbul in a revenge attack for Israel’s alleged assassination of a high-ranking Iranian military figure in May.

Erdogan may aim to use renewed relations as a springboard in his push to develop a gas pipeline that would see Israel pipe natural gas directly to Turkey for processing in a bid to reduce Turkish reliance on Russian gas.

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