The Islamist militia Hamas faces an uncertain scenario with the recent thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Israel's President Isaac Herzog became the first head of the Jewish state to visit Turkey in 14 years on 9 March, taking over from Labour's Shimon Peres, who last visited in 2007. Invited and received on this occasion by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Herzog took advantage of the trip to stage the beginning of a new stage in relations between Jerusalem and Ankara, in a context marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the energy crisis unleashed as a result of Western sanctions against Moscow.
The rapprochement with Israel, part of the strategic shift promoted by the Turkish government that has led it in recent months to iron out differences with countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, its regional rivals, has been viewed with suspicion from the Gaza Strip. The so-called Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, interprets this rapprochement as a more than likely threat to its interests, given that the Turkish Islamist leader had set himself up as a staunch defender of the Palestinian question, a stance that is hardly compatible with his recently launched roadmap.
The Hebrew president's trip to Ankara, described by Erdoğan himself as a 'turning point' in their bilateral relations, served to calibrate Turkish-Israeli agendas for the first time since 2009. Then came the accident of the Mavi Marmara, a boat in which nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli naval commandos while trying to circumvent the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid. That event provoked a diplomatic rift that is still simmering.
Erdoğan became more belligerent towards Israel and established political ties with Hamas, united by Islamist ideological ferment, nurturing the group with financial and logistical support. The Palestinian faction, which has ruled Gaza since 2006, then adopted the Turkish president as one of its main external supporters and Turkey as one of its strategic allies, a list that also includes countries such as Qatar, Syria and Iran. But this position is now being called into question.
The Israeli president's visit is explained by Europe's growing energy demand. With Russian gas imports reduced to a minimum, the Old Continent is looking for new suppliers and supply routes, and Israel, a gas power, could be a reliable solution in the medium to long term. There is the possibility of transporting gas extracted from the eastern Mediterranean to the European continent via Turkey, and integrating Ankara into the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). An embryonic plan.
Turkey's strategic interests in such a scenario, still weighed down by the shocking devaluation of the lira and galloping inflation, would be decoupled from historic Palestinian claims. The joint project would force the Turkish government to prioritise its relations with the Jewish executive or, at the very least, to maintain a moderate and restrained stance on the issue. An atmosphere that worries Hamas, whose external support has been diluted since the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020.
This prompted the Islamist organisation to issue a statement in the form of a condemnation. "We follow with deep concern the visits of senior officials of the Zionist entity to countries in the region. These countries are the strategic depth of the Palestinian people. The Zionist entity must not be given an opportunity to penetrate the region and play with the interests of our peoples," Hamas said in a letter in which there was no direct mention of Turkey or President Erdoğan.
The Gaza-based Muslim Brotherhood splinter group intentionally omitted references to the Turkish leader in an attempt to preserve smooth relations with Ankara. The jihadist organisation's leadership assured AFP that its intentions are to maintain "good and balanced ties with all Arab and Muslim countries, particularly Turkey". This explains the tone of the missive, which is unusual in the organisation's previous statements, especially in comparison with the one issued after the normalisation agreement between Israel and the Emirates.
Hamas is banking on moderation in a situation that is not very favourable to its interests. A break with Ankara would mean the loss of one of its last points of support, but allowing Israel to stabilise a direct channel of contact with Turkey would also have negative consequences for the Islamist militia. The meek language used by a once combative group has another explanation, namely that Turkish backing has gained weight in recent years to the detriment of its traditional allies.
Hamas' political leadership, known as the politburo, is known to operate from abroad for security reasons. Its members have little physical presence in the Gaza Strip despite shaping the government's political action. The first destination for some of the 15 members of the group's leadership was Bashar al-Assad's Syria, a country they were forced to leave in 2011 after the unsuccessful outbreak of revolution in the Arab Spring uprisings involving Palestinian refugees.
The second major destination was Qatar, a promoter of Islamism in the region, where members of the politburo established a base of operations that remains in place today. Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh, successor to Khaled Meshal, resides in Doha. While others flew to Saudi Arabia, an uneasy host that, under pressure from Washington, was forced to expel members of an organisation labelled "terrorist" by actors such as the United States and the European Union.
Turkey then became a favourable destination for senior Hamas commanders. According to Western intelligence services, the bulk of the politburo is now based in Istanbul, where the organisation is said to have been able to weave a robust economic network sufficient to finance its activities. The group's two leaders, Haniyeh and Meshal, are frequent visitors to the Eurasian nation, a key fact that reveals Turkey's logistical importance. Moreover, profiles such as that of Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas's vice president, have resided in Istanbul for the past 10 years.
But Israeli intelligence maintains that the organisation not only carries out economic activities from there, but also has political-military functions in the Gaza Strip. And it is the jihadist group's continued offensive activities against Israel, outlined from Turkey, whose symbolic aim is the destruction of the Hebrew state, that have led the Israeli government to intensify diplomatic efforts with the Turkish government. The Jewish Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, called on Erdoğan to stop the organisation's activities and close down Hamas' Turkish headquarters.
Some of the recent attacks in Jerusalem were allegedly carried out by individuals linked to the Islamist militia who visited Turkey in the weeks before the attack, according to Jewish officials. President Erdoğan's security cooperation seems feasible, as evidenced by the release of two Israeli citizens detained by Turkish forces in November on suspicion of spying for Israel after taking pictures of the presidential residence. If this happens, cities such as Beirut or Tehran could take over from Istanbul as the new base of operations.
Hamas will keep a close eye on Ankara's steps. The Islamist militia is optimistic about the Turkish leader, a figure who has embarked on an Islamising agenda in a country ruled in recent decades by deeply secular elites. The secular and democratic republic has been in retreat under Erdoğan's presidency, a process that has pleased his Islamist partners in the region and encourages the Hamas leadership, which regards him as one of its own. It is unlikely that he will give up or take a back seat on the Palestinian issue.
There is, however, a different perspective. A perspective that could benefit Hamas' current conditions in the Gaza Strip, and that is that the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey could see the latter actor replace Egypt in the role of mediator between the parties, which never negotiate face-to-face, but do so indirectly. Even more so in a context in which Cairo has lost credibility, despite managing the final ceasefire that ended the 11-day conflict in May 2021.
Al-Sisi's regime shares the US and Israel's view of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and is at odds with his predecessor Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader for whom he served as Defence Minister and over whom he executed a coup d'état. Egypt's position is further removed from its traditional role as an intermediary, and that adopted by Turkey could gain weight. If new Turkish-Israeli relations finally take hold, Erdoğan's mediation on this issue could ease the harsh blockade on Gaza, which is in chronic crisis.