Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jun. 6, 2016, 3:31pm

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, Qatar, 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 the Mavi 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 director David 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.  

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