Cancels plans to visit Israel due to 'inhumane' war

Turkey’s Erdogan: Hamas aren’t terrorists, they’re mujahideen defending homeland

President continues to blast Israel’s campaign in Gaza, leaving recent rapprochement process with Jerusalem in doubt; Jerusalem ‘wholeheartedly rejects’ comments

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to journalists during a joint news conference with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy following their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, July 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to journalists during a joint news conference with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy following their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, July 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, but is “mujahideen” defending their homeland.

Israel “can view Hamas as a terrorist organization, along with the West,” said Erdogan, speaking to a gathering of his AK Party faction in parliament. “The West owes you a lot. But Turkey does not owe you anything.”

“Hamas is not a terrorist organization, it is a group of mujahideen defending their lands,” he said to a standing ovation. “Mujahideen” is an Arabic term for those engaged in jihad, or holy war.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said shortly afterward that “Israel wholeheartedly rejects the Turkish president’s harsh words about the terrorist organization Hamas.”

Haiat added that Hamas is a “despicable terrorist organization worse than ISIS,” and that “even the Turkish president’s attempt to defend the terrorist organization and his inciting words will not change the horrors that the whole world has seen and the unequivocal fact: Hamas = ISIS.”

Israel says it has been hitting terror targets in the Strip as part of its campaign against Hamas since October 7, when some 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel, killing some 1,400 people and seizing over 220 hostages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men and women, children and the elderly.

Palestinian rescuers remove the rubble of a building following overnight Israeli strikes on the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on October 25, 2023. (Mohammed ABED / AFP)

Erdogan has not officially condemned Hamas’s slaughter of Israeli civilians.

Erdogan’s speech in Ankara recalled comments he has made in recent years defending Hamas.

“Hamas is not a terrorist organization and Palestinians are not terrorists,” he tweeted in 2018 as a “reminder” to Netanyahu. “It is a resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.”

Erdogan has not been shy about calling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, terrorists, and ordering military operations against them. Earlier this month, Erdogan announced “intensified air operations” against the PKK in the wake of an Ankara suicide bombing, pledging to “show the terrorists that we can destroy them anywhere and at any moment.”

Protesters wave flags showing the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and march with an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a demonstration organized by The Kurdish Democratic Society Center against Erdogan and Sweden’s NATO bid, in Stockholm on January 21, 2023. (Christine OLSSON/TT News Agency/AFP)

Netanyahu has also called the PKK a “terrorist organization.”

Erdogan also told the AKP forum on Wednesday he is canceling plans to visit Israel because of its “inhumane” war.

“We had a project to go to Israel, but it was canceled, we will not go,” Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, speaking in Qatar, accused Israel of “a crime against humanity” in its campaign in Gaza.

“Targeting our Palestinian brothers, including children, patients and the elderly, even in schools, hospitals and mosques, is a crime against humanity,” he said, alongside Qatari FM Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

Erdogan has been critical of Israel since its campaign against Hamas began in the wake of the October 7 massacres.

Mourners attend the funeral of David Caroll at Kibbutz Revivim, October 22, 2023. David Caroll was killed at Kibbutz Beeri by Hamas terrorists on October 7, as they carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack that killed some 1,400 people. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

Last week, Erdogan called for Israel to stop its military action.

“It is clear that security cannot be ensured by bombing hospitals, schools, mosques and churches,” Erdogan said in a statement. “I reiterate our call on the Israeli government not to expand the scope of its attacks against civilians and to immediately stop its operations that are bordering genocide.”

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/ File)

The Israeli Air Force has been pounding the Strip since October 7 with Israel declaring its intention to topple and destroy Hamas. Hamas-run health authorities said Wednesday the death toll in the Strip had passed 6,000. It is not clear how many of those killed were civilians and how many were terror group members, and the figures could not be independently verified. Israel says it killed some 1,500 terrorists in its territory during their October 7 assault.

Erdogan’s defense of Hamas and accusations against Israel put heavy strain on efforts to warm ties over the past year and a half, after years of animosity.

Israel was a long-time regional ally of Turkey before Erdogan came to power, but ties imploded after a 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship, part of a blockade-busting flotilla, that left dead 10 Turkish activists who attacked IDF soldiers aboard the ship.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan repeatedly aimed brickbats at each other in the ensuing years, including mutual charges of genocide. In July 2014, Erdogan accused the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during a war with Gaza.

Ties later saw a moderate improvement, but both countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2018 amid violence in Gaza and the Trump administration’s relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem.

Facing hardening diplomatic isolation and economic woes, Erdogan began to publicly display an openness toward rapprochement in December 2020. In August of last year, Israel and Turkey announced a full renewal of diplomatic ties.

In late September, Erdogan met with Netanyahu in New York for their first known sit-down and the two enthusiastically discussed avenues of cooperation. President Isaac Herzog was hosted by Erdogan last March in Ankara — the first high-level Israeli visit since 2008 — and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met the Turkish leader in February. Then-prime minister Yair Lapid met with Erdogan in New York during last year’s General Assembly.

At the same time, Turkey maintains deep ties with Hamas. Erdogan has been in close contact with the Hamas leadership since the start of the war, and has allowed the terror group to operate from an office in Istanbul for over a decade, insisting that it only hosts the group’s political wing. However, in 2020, Israel provided Turkish intelligence with evidence that members of Hamas’s military wing operate in the office, under the supervision of Beirut-based Saleh al-Arouri.

Illustrative: A grab from a UGC video posted on the Telegram channel “South First Responders” on October 9, 2023, shows a Palestinian terrorist walking around the Supernova music festival, near Kibbutz Re’im in southern Israel on October 7. (South First Responders/AFP)

From that office, Hamas terrorists have allegedly planned terror attacks against Israel and devised ways to transfer funds to the terror group’s activists in the West Bank.

In an interview with Turkish TV last week, Qatar-based former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said he has “great respect for Turkey,” adding that “Turkey should say ‘stop’” to Israel, according to Al-Monitor. The former leader has repeatedly met with Erdogan over the years, and in an address to members of Erdogan’s party in 2014, he said he hoped to “liberate Palestine and Jerusalem” with them.

A recent poll showed that the majority of Turkish citizens want Erdogan to remain neutral or to mediate in the war.

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