Turkey lets Hamas plot war on Israel
Agents plan attacks from Istanbul haven as Erdogan entertains terror group’s leader
TURKEY is allowing senior Hamas operatives to plot attacks against Israel from Istanbul, The Daily Telegraph can disclose, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan plays host to the terrorist group’s leaders.
Transcripts of Israeli police interrogations with suspects show that senior Hamas operatives are using Turkey’s largest city to direct operations in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, including an assassination attempt earlier this year on the mayor of Jerusalem.
Israel has repeatedly told Turkey that Hamas is using its territory to plan attacks, but last weekend Mr Erdoğan met Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, and Turkish intelligence agents maintain close contact with the group’s operatives in Istanbul. “We will keep on supporting our brothers in Palestine,” Mr Erdoğan said.
Turkey is already facing questions from Western allies over its support for extremist rebels in northern Syria and over its commitment to Nato after buying a Russian missile system.
Turkey agreed in a Us-brokered 2015 deal with Israel to stop Hamas planning attacks from its soil but has consistently failed to honour the agreement, Israeli officials said.
The issue has fuelled hostility between the two states, even though they maintain diplomatic relations. “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,” its foreign ministry said.
The Turkish government has offered Hamas safe harbour in Istanbul even as Arab states such as Saudi Arabia have distanced themselves from the group and moved closer to Israel. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the EU and US. Its armed wing has been designated a terror group by the UK.
Turkey has proved such a welcoming environment for Hamas that the group’s deputy leader, who has a $5 million US government bounty on his head, travels freely to the country without fear of arrest. A dozen Hamas operatives have moved to Istanbul from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in the past year, according to Israeli and Egyptian intelligence records.
Among them is the former leader of a suicide bombing cell responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks in Israel in the Nineties.
In one failed plot in February, a Hamas official ordered a Palestinian to assassinate Jerusalem’s mayor, an MP from Benjamin Netanyahu’s party or Israel’s chief of police. The plot failed. In another case, a Hamas operative offered to pay $20,000 to the family of any would-be suicide bomber.
A Turkish diplomatic source denied Hamas was planning attacks from Turkey. He said the group was “not a terrorist organisation” but a legitimate Palestinian political party. Hamas denied planning attacks from Turkish soil and dismissed Israel’s complaints as “baseless allegations” designed to damage political relations with Turkey.
“Hamas’s resistance activities are conducted only in the land of occupied Palestine,” a Hamas spokesman said. Leading Hamas operatives and alleged linked businesses did not respond to requests for interviews.
Hamas is a Palestinian militant group whose ideology mixes Islamist extremism and Palestinian nationalism. The group was founded in 1987 and opposes Israel’s existence within any borders. It swears instead to establish an Islamic state in historical Palestine, which includes Israel. Its secular rival, the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, takes a more moderate approach and supports a two-state solution.
Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombers in the Nineties and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians and soldiers. It is considered a terrorist group by the US and EU, while the UK has designated its armed wing a terror organisation.
Hamas won the most recent Palestinian elections in 2006 and subsequently seized power in Gaza by force and drove out its Fatah rivals. The two groups remain bitter rivals and Hamas struggles to operate in the West Bank partly because the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority there cooperates closely with Israeli forces to combat its activities.
The group fires rockets into Israel but increasingly focuses on improving economic and humanitarian conditions in Gaza as a way of preserving its grip on power.
The group has long maintained links with Iran, whose Revolutionary Guard has supplied it with finances and, allegedly, weapons. Despite near-total isolation in the West, it also enjoys backing and ties with major regional and international powers.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas politburo, met president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey last Saturday, then the Emir of Qatar in Doha, and is set to fly on to Russia and Malaysia.
The grand tour, after Egypt gave him permission to travel outside the Gaza Strip for the first time in three years, has raised speculation about the group’s future in the region.
There is unconfirmed speculation that Donald Trump may push the group into a tripartite peace deal with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Although Hamas and Israel publicly consider one another mortal enemies, behind the scenes the two have been quietly exploring diplomatic options.
In the past year, they have held stopstart talks toward a deal in which Israel loosens its 12-year blockade of the Strip in return for Hamas halting rocket fire and keeping the border quiet.
That has caused some tension with rival militant groups. Last month, Islamic Jihad, a smaller group also based in the Gaza Strip, fired rockets into Israel and accused Hamas of standing aside when Israel launched retaliatory airstrikes.
Israel, for its part, appeared to take pains to avoid hitting Hamas positions.