(January 6, 2020 / Israel Hayom) Palestinian Authority officials are calling the gift the Turkish government gave them a few years ago “the treasure.” The trove comprises 140,000 pages of carefully arranged microfilm that could have a dramatic effect on Israel’s ability to hold on to a number of assets—land and structures—throughout the country.
The “treasure” is actually a copy of the Ottoman Archive and includes thousands of Ottoman Empire-era land registration documents. The Ottoman empire ruled what is now Israel from 1517-1917. The Palestinians see these documents as a game-changer in their battle with Israel over land. They have already used the archive to challenge Israeli ownership of land and real estate in various parts of the country.
The first complete copy of the valuable archive was placed in the P.A. consulate in Ankara for fear that the Israelis would get their hands on it. In March of last year, a formal celebration marked the transfer of part of the archive to Bethlehem. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center documented the event, as well as the transfer of the archive in its entirety. But for some reason—even though the Palestinians now have a tool that could shake up the Israeli real estate market—the story has stayed under the radar.
To illustrate the possible ramifications of the Turkish move, we could compare it to a better-known incident in which the Greek Orthodox Church refused to extend leases on its extensive land holdings in Jerusalem. As a result, thousands of Jewish families in the capital are now living under the threat of eviction.
A key figure at the ceremony in Bethlehem was Yousef Adais, the P.A. minister of religious endowments, who was given the files that have to do with the Waqf’s properties in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. At the event, the Palestinians talked about the Israeli government’s so-called “attempts to falsify” history, and now, lawyers in eastern Jerusalem regularly consult the Ottoman archive to determine property and land ownership.
One obvious example are the properties and plots in the Old City of Jerusalem that Jews and Arabs are battling over. The most famous is the Western Wall Plaza, where the Mughrabi neighborhood used to stand. Israel evacuated and demolished it to lay down the plaza. That was land Israel confiscated, but at least in terms of propaganda, brandishing the deeds to it could be a big embarrassment for Israel.
Saeed al-Hajj, a Palestinian researcher and expert on the Turkish matter, reported back in 2015 on a giant project carried out by an organization called the “Turkish-Palestinian Forum.” As part of the project, hundreds of thousands of document from the Ottoman Archive are being transferred so that Palestinians can pick and choose those that are relevant to the Palestinian issue. Al-Hajj thinks that this will give the Palestinians ground to file hundreds of lawsuits against Israel, here and abroad.
Working with the mufti
The P.A. isn’t losing any time. Judge Musa Shakarna, chairman of the Palestinian Land Authority, is already registering land in Judea and Samaria as well as in Jerusalem with the help of Turkey and its archive. In an interview by the Palestinian Wafa news agency, Shakarna made it clear that the process has started and no one can stop it. He defined the move as strategic and explained that by registering the lands of Palestinians who live outside the country, he is implementing their right of return.
Shakarna assesses that by 2023, all of the land in the West Bank will be legally registered. P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas is involved, as is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and TIKA, a Turkish development NGO. TIKA is active across the globe in the name of the Turkish government, including in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, where it invests some $1.3 million annually.
Erdoğan, it turns out, does not limit himself to ideology. The Turkish president, who sees himself as the patron of the Muslim Brotherhood and the vanguard of the Ottman Caliphate that will one day return to Jerusalem, has decided to take action to implement his vision of restoring Islam’s glory throughout “Palestine” as a whole and in Jerusalem in particular. The story of the archive is the crowning achievement of his recent moves, but he is also promoting a Turkish national awakening in the capital through cultural events, Turkish flags, and especially dawa—known as the “quiet jihad.”
Dawa is by definition activity that focuses on charity, education and social assistance in an attempt to bring people closer to Islam. Dozens of dawa groups are active in Israel and receiving funding from Turkey. They help the Arab population with religious, cultural, community and social matters, thus strengthening Turkey’s influence in Israel, with a special emphasis on Jerusalem.
One central organization is the Turkish Cultural Center, which focuses on developing and spreading the Ottoman legacy and the dream of reviving the empire in the areas it ruled until 1917.
Only a few weeks ago, the center signed an agreement to cooperate with the Muslim Waqf in Jerusalem. The center provides encouragement and assistance in funding Turkish language programs in eastern Jerusalem schools and in universities such as Bir Zeit and Al Quds. At the signing ceremony, the Waqf was represented by Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, the former mufti of Jerusalem.
A few years ago, Sabri rolled out a campaign to rebuild terrorists’ homes that Israel has demolished and even called suicide bombings “legitimate.” He is identified with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Islamic Movement in Israel. Sabri is a close associate of both Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, and Erdoğan. Two years ago, Erdoğan conferred on him the honor of “Defender of Jerusalem.”
The activities of the Turkish Cultural Center, located on Al Zahara Street in Jerusalem, go far beyond culture. Last year, the center was a partner in a conference that featured calls rejecting Jewish ties to Jerusalem, and on the Palestinians’ independence day celebrated the “29th year since the declaration of a Palestinian state.”
Who remembers the governor’s house?
Until not long ago, Israeli-Turkish cultural relations were different. It was none other than right-wing politician Rehavam Ze’evi who initiated a program to rebuild the Saraya House in Jaffa, the former home of the Turkish governor. It was a different time; Erdoğan hadn’t been elected, and Ze’evi was working with the Turks. Even after Ze’evi was murdered in 2001, the Turks and the Israeli Tourism Ministry, along with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, continued to promote the project and invested millions of shekels in it. The historic structure, which was bombed by Lehi in 1948 and stood derelict until 2002, was refurbished.
Architect Eyal Ziv recalls that the Turks were responsible for rebuilding the interior of Saraya House, and says the project was “free from religious or national zealotry. We focused on preserving the building culture, within the framework of a larger plan to rebuild Old Jaffa, but ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in December 2008 threw a wrench in the works.”
Ziv says that the building’s re-dedication was planned down to the smallest detail: “The furniture that was brought in was a copy of the furniture in the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the sultans in Istanbul. Erdoğan, who had just been elected prime minister, was supposed to come to Israel and Shimon Peres, as president, was to welcome him. But then came the Mavi Marmara incident. Erdoğan became more extremist and relations with Turkey deteriorated. In effect, the plan was frozen. Today, the Turkish Embassy is renting the building, and it’s usually closed,” he says.
Now everything has changed. The owners of souvenir shops in the Old City sell keychains with pendants that show the Western Wall on one side and the Turkish flag on the other. In the past two years the Turks have funded not only a replacement for the gold crescent that tops the Dome of the Rock, but also the reconstruction of other Islamic monuments like the Chain Dome in the center of the Temple Mount and parts of the eastern wall of the Old City.
‘You poisoned me’
While the Turks’ main focus is Jerusalem, they are active throughout the country, and their interest in Jaffa and other Arab population centers goes beyond considerations of tourism or culture. According to Mehmet Damarg, the head of the Turkish organization Our Legacy, the group allocated funds to rebuild the Hassen Bek and Sea (Jama al Bahr) mosques in Jaffa, as well as the Al-Jarina Mosque in Haifa.
Our Legacy, which is headquartered in Istanbul, has been in contact with Raed Salah. One of its main sources of funding is TIKA, and its goals include “protecting Al Aqsa Mosque and the Ottoman legacy in Jerusalem.”
There are other Turkish organizations that maintain contact with former mufti of Jerusalem Sabri, who recently led the Waqf’s campaign to take control of the area in front of the Gate of Mercy, and Archbishop of Sebastia Atallah Hanna, who accused Israel of poisoning him. Only a few weeks ago, Hanna took part in a conference in Turkey titled “Apartheid in Israel.” Hanna has a long history of anti-Israeli stances. He has visited the homes of suicide bombers, and even met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Other Turkish targets include the mixed Jewish-Arab cities of Acre, Ramle and Lod. The Turks have tried to plant their flag in Acre, but without success. In Ramle they are trying to buy influence in the White Mosque. In Lod, the Great Mosque (Al-Omari Mosque) was allocated NIS 620,000 shekels ($178,000) for renovations from the NGO Hand in Hand. Hand in Hand was established in Ankara in 2012 to “make things easier for the residents of the territory Israel occupied in 1948.”
Since then, Hand in Hand has busied itself rebuilding mosques and Muslim cemeteries that were damaged in the “catastrophe of 1948” and places that have “been transferred to Israel’s filthy hands.” The group has paid the salaries of dozens of imams throughout Israel, funded Quran study and student groups at Israeli universities, and even helped facilitate Muslim visits to Al Aqsa.
In the past few years, Hand in Hand has turned its attention to the Negev and fostered ties with the Bedouin population. It worked with the Islamic Movement and helped outfit illegal Bedouin villages with water and solar energy, all while inculcating the narrative of the “Nakba” among Israeli Arabs. Recently, representatives of Hand in Hand took part in an event in Turkey alongside activists from IHH, which Israel has declared a terrorist organization.
Turkish organizations and money are filtering through Israel, but particularly Jerusalem, where a total of 130 buildings have been restored thus far thanks to Turkish money. According to Israeli security officials, some 4,300 homes and 70 mosques in eastern Jerusalem have been marked for renovations to be funded by Turkish NGOs. A few members of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement have their fingers in the pie—they recommend community and religious projects they believe worth of Turkish funding, and Turkey listens.
Israel, which is taking out Hamas cells handled from Turkey, is finding it hard to handle the Turkish civil activity, which should be an easier task. In only one case has the government outlawed one of these organizations, after it managed to prove that it had links to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the security establishment, the group functioned as a conduit for projects Hamas was executing in Jerusalem.
In another case, the National Security Council recommending putting limits on the activity of a large Turkish organization. In another instance, the Jerusalem Municipality approved a request for a building permit for a sports center for the charity organization Women of Sur Baher, which is linked to Hamas and has received money from Turkey.
Maor Tzemach, head of the group Lach, Yerushalayim, which has been tracking Turkish activity in Jerusalem for years, claims that the extensive Turkish activity harms Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, and that it is time for Israel to draw clear boundaries for Turkish involvement in the city and the rest of the country. Tzemach and his organization continually supply Israeli authorities with relevant information, but don’t think Israel has taken any significant action.
Tzemach’s group has spent the last few months documenting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic conferences in Turkey that functioned as platforms for meetings between people from Hamas, the Jerusalem Waqf, heads of Turkish organizations active in Israel, and Erdoğan himself.
“It should have set off warning lights for the policy makers in Israel a long time ago,” Tzemach says.
Asa Ofir, an analyst on Turkey and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, has been plowing through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and documenting some of the Jerusalem-themed conferences taking place in Turkey. Three examples of the many available include a conference titled “Embracing Jerusalem,” which was held in the town of Tekirdag; “Time for Jerusalem,” a play that was put on with sponsorship from Erdoğan’s office; and a special panel marking 50 years since the “occupation” of Jerusalem that was organized by the city of Esenler.
“If we lose Jerusalem, we lose Mecca,” Erdoğan recently declared. However, as his continuing efforts demonstrate, he’s not only trying to avoid losing the city, but also to conquer it.
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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