Turkey recently announced plans to implement a new
$13.5 million dollar housing project in Gaza. The project
includes 20 four-story, residential buildings comprised of 320 individual units
of around 1,000 square feet a piece. The housing project is presented as a
humanitarian effort to help those Palestinians displaced by Israel’s 2014 war
on the U.S. designated terrorist group Hamas, which destroyed 12,000 housing
units and damaged 160,000 more.
While Turkey has been providing charity for embattled
Palestinian civilians for over a decade by repairing electricity and sanitation
facilities, delivering medical supplies, and rebuilding houses, mosques, roads,
and hospitals, and is now even in negotiations with Israel to open a seaport
in Gaza which would create thousands of new jobs, not
everyone is convinced that Turkish aid is inspired by altruism. Indeed,
Turkey’s generosity is only outmatched by one other country in the Middle East,
whose $1 billion dollar pledge to help rebuild Palestine incurs similar doubts
regarding the country’s motivation.
The history of Turkish involvement in Palestine is
complicated by Turkey’s destructive relationships with both Israel and Egypt. While
the former occupies the Gaza strip, the latter shares and controls the Sinai border, and the cooperation of
both countries is indispensable to any peace negotiations between Israel and
Palestine. Therefore, Turkey’s efforts to open a seaport in Gaza would present
unique security risks to both countries.
Turkey’s relationship with Israel suffered
devastating blows in May of 2009 when Israeli police forced their way onboard
Marmara, part of a Turkish “humanitarian aid” fleet that
was attempting to access the Gaza strip, and murdered nine Turkish nationals. In
the wake of this fiasco, Turkey made demands on Israel, asking for compensation
and apologies, which were ignored. Turkish president Racep Tayyip Erdogan then launched
a campaign of verbal attacks on Israeli treatment of Palestinians. In turn,
Israel accused Erdogan of supporting Hamas. These assaults escalated in 2011
when Ankara expelled their Israeli ambassador.
Despite these sour political relations, economic
and trade relations between the two countries survived. Recent months have even
seen a formal
apology by Israel for the murders aboard the Mavi Marmara.
As a result of that apology, and Erdogan’s waning public support
for Hamas, negotiations between Turkey and Israel to broker
the opening of a Gaza port are underway. Egypt, however, is not happy about
Turkey’s involvement in Palestine or their détente with Israel.
The tension between Egypt
and Turkey first came to a head in July of 2013 when Muslim
Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by General Abdel Fattah
al-Sisi. Erdogan, an Islamist president close to the Muslim Brotherhood, refused
to recognize al-Sisi’s presidency. Indeed, unlike Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.,
Turkey did not rush to support Egypt’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood
(MB) as a terrorist organization. In addition, Turkey came to be seen as the
Muslim Brotherhood’s greatest supporter
against the Bashar al-Assad regime
in Syria. In this way, Turkey became isolated not only from Egypt but from the
rest of the Middle East (with the exception of Qatar, who also supports the MB),
and Turkey’s Ambassador to Egypt was expelled in 2013.
Egypt is further angered by Turkey’s relationship
with Hamas, and worried that Turkish interference in
Palestine will increase security risks throughout Egypt. At this point, Egypt
maintains a complete closure of the strip between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula,
hoping to keep pressure on and alienate Hamas. But al-Sisi worries that any
easing of restrictions by Israel, as a result of their negotiations with
Turkey, would mean the strengthening of Hamas, and by extension other Islamists,
in the region.
Israel and Egypt both worry that an open port in
Gaza would allow weapons to flow freely to the terror group. Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Shenker says, “[Egypt views Turkey] as Islamist and
ideological, so they would be concerned that the Turkish role would bolster the
popularity of Hamas in Gaza.” While there are concerns from Egypt and Israel
that Turkey’s involvement in negotiations could lead to ideological control
over Palestine and a decrease in regional security, Palestinians themselves are
of two minds.
In general, Palestinian support of Turkish efforts
has been strong. One shopkeeper
in Gaza recalls, “Our Arab brothers have not raised a
finger on our behalf. At least Turkey is demanding Israel to lift the blockade
on us.” But while many Palestinians express gratitude for the involvement of both
the Turkish government and charities, some are concerned that Turkish politics
playing out in the region will undermine
Palestinian authority and sovereignty, force a separation
between Gaza and the West Bank, and establish Gaza as an independent state.
Indeed, these Palestinians argue that Turkish motives are political rather than
benevolent and that humanitarian efforts are driven by Turkey’s reach for power
and influence over the region.
Palestinian support for and skepticism of Turkey
is complicated by the fact that Hamas expresses unilateral, unwavering support
for Turkish negotiations in Gaza, even going so far as to offer
to step aside and let Turkey do all the talking. Given
both the history of Turkey’s strained relations in the region and their
ideological position and support for Islamists, Israelis, Egyptians, and
Palestinians alike are right to be concerned about the strings that come
attached to Turkey’s humanitarian efforts.