Turkish aid agency up to its old tricks in Jerusalem

The re-establishing of Israeli-Turkish ties has led to renewed efforts by an Islamist Turkish aid agency to undermine Israeli sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem.

View of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Dec. 3, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
View of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Dec. 3, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The Israel-Turkey diplomatic thaw is paving the way for the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) to resume its efforts to undermine Israeli sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem and boost Turkish influence in the city.

TIKA is a Turkish government agency that provides developmental aid in some 150 countries, particularly in Central Asia, Africa and the Mideast. It works in coordination with Turkey’s Foreign Ministry.

Turkey works to win the hearts and minds of Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem by providing assistance in housing, health, education and assistance to needy families. One of its prominent projects is the “Palestinian Space” project which aims to rehabilitate abandoned villages around Jerusalem.

TIKA says it seeks to “strengthen the Palestinian steadfastness in Jerusalem.”

The agency stopped its activities in the city in 2019 when Israeli officials threatened to revoke the diplomatic status of the heads of the TIKA’s Jerusalem office. Then-Foreign Minister Israel Katz accused TIKA of supporting the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and of trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.

But as Israel and Ankara restore ties, TIKA is now returning to Jerusalem.

‘A Turkish statement of intent’

In April, a delegation of senior TIKA officials led by CEO Serkan Kayalar visited eastern Jerusalem, Ramallah and Hebron, meeting with Palestinian Authority officials and local leaders. They also met with Jordanian officials at the Israel-Jordan border.

But the key event of the four-day visit was an iftar meal—a traditional dinner held by Muslims each night during the month of Ramadan—at eastern Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel, which was attended by dozens of local religious leaders, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish officials. 

According to several guests, the event was regarded as a clear declaration of TIKA’s return to eastern Jerusalem with the semi-official blessing of the Turkish government.

“It is true that this is a Turkish statement of intent,” said one Palestinian official who attended the meal.

Another Palestinian official from eastern Jerusalem who attended the event claimed that TIKA and the Turkish consulate had funded it. 

Furthermore, Kayalar had pledged on behalf of TIKA to “continue to operate both in east Jerusalem and in the territories of the Palestinian Authority,” the official said.

Asked about TIKA’s plans in eastern Jerusalem, Kayalar said, “Such a program is expected to be limited in order not to provoke opposition in Israel.”

Turkish notables joining TIKA’s meal were the deputy consul of Turkey in Jerusalem, Samara Demiral, and the director of the Cultural Center of Turkey, Cengiz Eroglu.

‘The real Turkish ambassador’

But the iftar meal’s main guest of honor was Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, head of the Supreme Muslim Council and former Palestinian Authority-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, who is known in eastern Jerusalem as “the real Turkish ambassador” in the city.

Sabri is currently being investigated by the Israel Police for inciting terror. In October, while visiting the family of Palestinian terrorist Udai Tamimi, who was killed in a shootout in October, Sabri called on Palestinian youth to join the “family of martyrs,” which he described as “sublime and divine, and to be aspired to.”

Tamimi shot and killed Sgt. Noa Lazar and was later killed when he opened fire on security guards in Maale Adumim.

Although the iftar meal was funded by the TIKA and the consulate, it was spearheaded by Sabri, according to Palestinian sources.

Out of sensitivity to Jordan, the Turkish delegation also met with the director of the Waqf at the Al-Aqsa mosque, Azzam al-Khatib. The Islamic Waqf, which administers the daily affairs of the Temple Mount, is overseen by Jordan.

The Palestinian source, who participated in that meeting, said, “This step is intended to calm Jordan, which has been very disturbed for years by the Turkish activities in east Jerusalem and by the significant support that Turkey gives to the clerics and elements of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The source added, “There is no doubt that the Islamic game of the Muslim Brotherhood in east Jerusalem is a dirty game, therefore the Turks will now try to balance the activity.”

However, “the suspicion has not gone away,” and the Jordanian government recently demanded that the Turks hand over the funds intended for the various projects in eastern Jerusalem, such as the project to establish dormitories for female students at Al-Quds University. The Turks refused, delaying the dormitory project for more than three years, said the source.

“Turkey will operate in Jerusalem to the minimum necessary and will transfer its center of gravity to the territories of the Palestinian Authority,” the source continued.

TIKA’s leadership, he said, “Understand that they must not stick a finger in Israel’s eye, and their activity in east Jerusalem will be limited and [carried out] in a way that will not arouse opposition as before.”

However, Samer Singilawi, a Fatah activist in eastern Jerusalem, said that TIKA’s investment in eastern Jerusalem isn’t as significant as critics claim, saying “Turkey is doing a limited budget but a lot of show.”

TIKA, he said, is “limited now to cultural activities, mainly financing teaching the Turkish language to some of the schools in east Jerusalem. But we didn’t see major money coming from Turkey to east Jerusalem.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry denied knowledge of any of the above details but said that the matter had been brought to the attention of its diplomatic department.

“But, in any case, we will not allow any of the parties in Turkey in general to interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or set foot in east Jerusalem,” it said.

The ministry added that “the policy of the former [foreign] minister, Israel Katz, regarding Turkey’s involvement will not change.”

TIKA’s offices in Ramallah did respond to requests for further comment.

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