Turkey continues to tolerate Hamas’ operations against Israel

The country wants to have it both ways.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his official visit to Serbia in 2017. Credit: Sasa Dzambic Photography/Shutterstock.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his official visit to Serbia in 2017. Credit: Sasa Dzambic Photography/Shutterstock.
Ioannis E. Kotoulas

As Turkey works to repair relations with Israel, it is not yet willing to stop supporting Hamas. Turkey continues to host Hamas operatives in its territory and refuses to recognize it as a terrorist organization.

Three Israeli Arabs from northern Israel were indicted in late October for helping create a considerable cyber threat against the communications infrastructure used by the IDF. They are also accused of providing sensitive Israeli security information to Hamas terrorists in Turkey. In essence, the three were capable of disrupting IDF and Israel Police communications by taking down the cellular system in a time of tension or war.

The main suspect, identified only by his initials R.A., is a software engineer at Israeli telecommunications company Cellcom, which provides services to both the IDF and the Israel Police. He enjoyed a broad access privilege to Cellcom’s database and information systems. In 2017, Israeli investigators say, he met with Hamas operatives in Turkey.

The meeting was arranged by Ashraf Hassan, a former Israeli citizen and a Hamas operative. Hassan is a dangerous terrorist. In 2004, he was sentenced to nine years in prison for plotting to kidnap and kill an Israeli soldier. Hassan left Israel in 2016 and moved to Turkey. In 2021, the Israeli Interior Ministry revoked his Israeli citizenship in an attempt to keep him from returning to the country.

R.A. also met with another Hamas military official in Turkey, Azzam Akra. Both Hassan and Akra report to Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official in charge of terrorist operations in Judea and Samaria. Al-Arouri, a founding commander of Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is a U.S.-designated terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head under the Rewards for Justice Program.

Al-Arouri was based in Istanbul, Turkey at least until 2016, using the city as his headquarters to direct Hamas’ terrorist operations in Judea and Samaria. He drifted between Lebanon and Qatar, but in 2020 Hamas members reported that he had returned to Turkey.

R.A. allegedly gave Hamas sensitive information about Israeli communications infrastructure, which could help the terrorist organization disrupt systems during a conflict.

“Cellcom strongly condemns the serious incident and worked closely with the security authorities to thwart any potential damage and help the investigation,” a company statement said. “The employee accused of the serious acts as well as the outside consultant were dismissed from Cellcom immediately.”

R.A. recruited a Cellcom colleague, known by his initials S.A., to identify ways to circumvent Cellcom’s information security systems. S.A. acted “with full knowledge that R.A. intended to pass the relevant information to the Hamas members in Turkey,” the indictment said.

The third defendant, Z.A., is R.A.’s brother. He met with Ashraf at least three times in Turkey.

The three Israeli Arabs had been cooperating with Hamas since 2015 “out of their desire to help the Palestinian military struggle against Israel by harming a central communication infrastructure in Israel [Cellcom] and its users, and harming the security of the state,” the indictment said.

Hamas established a headquarters in Istanbul in 2012, directing hundreds of terror attacks in Israel, Judea and Samaria, and laundering millions of dollars. Hamas continues to use Turkey as a major financial hub to avoid international sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.

On Nov. 8, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey rejected an Israeli request to deport Hamas leaders. “We didn’t satisfy any [Israeli] request on Hamas, because we don’t perceive Hamas as a terror group,” he stated.

“We are always leading efforts to unify them with Fatah,” he added, referring to the Palestinian political party that controls the Palestinian Authority.

The Turkish government seems to be continuing an ambivalent policy. On the one hand, it recently helped thwart an Iranian plot to kill Israeli citizens in Turkey. But it refuses to renounce Hamas, even after numerous deadly attacks were orchestrated by operatives in Turkey. Turkey also continues to support and provide refuge to members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Over the last dozen years, Israeli-Turkish relations have been fraught, but recently there has been an attempt to ameliorate relations between the two countries due to the volatile geopolitical environment in the larger region.

In August, the two countries restored full diplomatic relations by mutually assigning ambassadors after a long period of tension. However, the Israeli side has been asking for specific initiatives by the Turkish side, such as ending the presence of the Hamas leadership in Turkey, before engaging in serious bilateral talks. Turkey has refused to expel the Hamas operatives.

It seems that Turkey is not yet willing to give up on the Islamist card in its approach to the Middle East. Turkey is hoping to project its influence in the region, as it did in the past through Islamists in Syria and the Morsi regime in Egypt. It is in this context that Turkey allows Hamas’ activities on its territory.

Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is a senior fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism and an adjunct lecturer in geopolitics at the University of AthensHis latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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