For well over a week, the Israeli government has been urging Israelis in Turkey to return home as soon as possible. It has also admonished those unable or unwilling to cut short their holidays not to frequent shops, restaurants or tourist attractions and, if possible, not to leave their rooms at all.
The warning stems from an immediate and concrete threat from Iran. According to accounts in some media outlets last week, a group of Israelis enjoying themselves in Istanbul received a phone call from security services ordering them not to return to their hotel, as Iranian terrorists were lying in wait. These travelers were picked up and promptly put on a plane without their belongings.
A far more specific report emerged on Saturday night, with an anonymous defense official revealing that Iran’s mission to murder Israelis in Istanbul was ongoing and in full swing. While praising the close cooperation with Ankara authorities that enabled the thwarting of a number of imminent attacks, he announced that the Iranian cells operating in the area know exactly which hotels have Israelis guests and how to recognize them.
His revelation followed a meeting on Friday afternoon between Mossad chief David Barnea and National Security Council head Eyal Haluta, after which they issued similarly warnings: Israelis in Turkey should refrain from posting on social media and riding in taxis, and should lock their hotel-room doors and refuse to open them for anyone, including chambermaids.
It turns out that Iran has not only dispatched terrorists whose sole goal is to target Israelis, but has recruited Turkish citizens to assist in the endeavor. Nothing like leaning on locals to help identify Jewish-state denizens in their midst.
So far so bad. Worse is the response of the unwitting targets. Happy to be on what is, for many, their first trip abroad since the beginning of the pandemic, a good portion of the thousands of Israelis—2,000 out of 5,000 who went there earlier this month—aren’t in the mood to leave.
The defense official, who added that remaining in Istanbul is tantamount to “tempting fate,” declared that even complacent Israelis would flee Turkey like bats out of hell if they were aware of the whole picture. One brush stroke is that some Israeli tourists were minutes away from death and didn’t realize it.
Sadly, this glimpse into what is going on isn’t sufficient cause for a full Israeli exodus from Turkey, which is a favored destination for its sites and relatively inexpensive fare.
This is not just because the Israelis staying there are having fun. Nor is it due solely to their concern about the money that they’ve already spent on flights and rental cars, or sums that they stand to lose by doing an about-face.
No, it’s both simpler and more complicated than that. In the first place, Israelis live with terror warnings and actual attacks on a daily basis. Secondly, pooh-poohing danger—rhetorically, at least—is a cultural attribute, as is refusing to be a freier, a patsy.
The hesitation about being seen to follow directives when others are flaunting them is one element of this funny form of bravado. But being in the literal crosshairs of Iranian killers is not the least bit amusing. And it’s clear that this is an order that must be obeyed for everyone’s sake.
It is tricky enough for Israeli and Turkish security forces to track down the would-be assassins without also having to run around begging hundreds of potential victims to evacuate. Another truism is that in the event of tragedy striking, the very people who dismissed the demand that they fly to safety will expect the Israeli government to rescue them.
It is, as well, the height of irony that many of the same Israelis cowered in the face of the coronavirus. Apparently, it’s easier for the powers-that-be in Jerusalem to instill health anxiety in the public than fear of slaughter at the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Israel believes that IRGC Intelligence Organization head Hossein Taeb is behind the foiled attacks and those still in the works. The assessment is that the ongoing mission was launched to avenge the death of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, deputy commander of the IRGC’s secret Quds Force Unit 840, which plans and executes terrorist attacks against Israeli and Western targets beyond Iran’s borders.
Khodaei was one of a number of IRGC members—two of them aerospace engineers in charge of developing weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon—assassinated in recent weeks. While reiterating what his colleagues have been stressing to the sitting ducks in Istanbul, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that any attack on Israeli citizens in Turkey would be responded to “decisively.”
Tehran isn’t listening or doesn’t care. The Israelis in its sights ought to bear that in mind. Let’s hope it’s not too late for them to make it to the tarmac unscathed.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”