|Feb 2, 2:05 AM EST|
Turkey and Hamas grow close
By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA
ISTANBUL (AP) -- Ties between Turkey, NATO's biggest Muslim
member, and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that says Israel should
not exist, are blossoming.
Last month, the
Hamas premier visited the Turkish prime minister at his Istanbul home.
Today, Turkish and Palestinian flags fly side by side at a building site
in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
like bad news for Israel, whose alliance with Turkey collapsed over a
deadly raid by Israeli troops on a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in
2010. Yet some pundits believe that Turkey, a rising power that has
worked with Washington on Iraq and other regional problems, could seek
to nudge Hamas away from the principle of armed struggle or reduce the
influence of Iranian sponsors.
acknowledge closer engagement with Hamas could disrupt Turkish diplomacy
if there is another Gaza war, or a return to rocket attacks and
bombings of Israeli targets. Israel wonders if Turkey will veer closer
to the Hamas line, rather than the other way around.
Hamas sponsor, Syria, is struggling to quell an uprising and has broken
with Turkey, a former ally that says President Bashar Assad should
resign. Turkey has said there are no plans for Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas
political leader based in Damascus, to move to Turkey, though some
Turkish analysts think the government phrasing did not close the door on
the idea of a Hamas office in Turkey.
would like to have more influence over Hamas as part of its general
program of increasing influence in the region. Certainly, the decline of
Syria has made that relationship more attractive to Hamas," Howard
Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in the United
States, wrote in an email.
However, he noted:
"Hamas would have to be very isolated indeed for Turkey to be able to
push it in directions that it doesn't want to go. Given its ability to
get aid from private donors in the Gulf and from Iran, that type of
desperation seems unlikely in the short term."
a possible patron or model for Hamas, Turkey seemingly has a lot to
share, though its ambitions for influence elsewhere in the fast-changing
region have sometimes fallen short of expectations. Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a pious Muslim at the helm of a secular
political system that he has dominated with robust election wins and a
strong economic record.
He won Palestinian
praise in blockaded Gaza with harsh criticism of Israel. While Turkish
officials back calls for democratic reform in response to popular
uprisings, Iran remains supportive of Syria and is under U.N. sanctions
because of its suspected nuclear weapons program.
says the program is peaceful, an assertion that Turkey once backed
enthusiastically. Now there are strains, partly because Turkey agreed to
host a NATO defense shield radar that would warn of any Iranian
ballistic missiles. Turkey and Iran are also wary of each other's
involvement in Iraq, a stew of sectarian tension.
the diplomatic front, Turkey and Iran enjoy cordial relations. Turkey
buys oil and gas from Iran," said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a political analyst
at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara.
"However, there are thorny issues under the table."
Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, noted that Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey made "very friendly statements"
toward Hamas and, in his view, absolved the group of responsibility for
attacks on Israeli civilians.
approach would have the effect of moderating Hamas, then we could
understand the strategy," Palmor said. "But in fact, the opposite is
true. Hamas in all its public statements continues to toe its
ultra-extremist line, and the Turkish government is the one that
distanced itself from Israel. So it looks like Hamas is influencing the
Turkish government, and not vice versa."
relationship between Turkey and Hamas came to prominence in 2006, when a
delegation led by Mashaal visited Ankara after their victory in
More recently, Turkey
encouraged Hamas to reconcile with rival faction Fatah in what could be a
key step toward any accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Last
year, Turkey hosted a meeting between the two factions, which have
tentatively agreed to hold elections next year.
October, Turkey welcomed 11 Palestinian prisoners who were among
hundreds freed in an exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Unal, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said the gesture
was a "contribution to the bigger picture" between Israel and the
Palestinians and was done at the written request of the Palestinians,
and with Israel's knowledge.
Gulnur Aybet, a
senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent at
Canterbury in Britain, said Turkey appeared to be trying to use its
"soft power to persuade Hamas to act more like a political party," which
could include the downplaying or abandonment of the tenet that Israel
should not exist. She acknowledged that some factions within Hamas would
strongly resist such a move.
media have reported that Turkish officials plan to funnel hundreds of
millions of dollars to Hamas. Turkey denies it. It is, however, funding
the construction of a hospital in Gaza and helping in efforts to
establish an industrial zone there and improve infrastructure for
businesses, including textiles and furniture.
Jan. 1, the Hamas premier, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Erdogan on his first
trip outside Gaza since the Islamist group seized control of the
territory in a 2007 fight with Fatah. He said in Turkey: "We have
reached consensus to work for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip."
Barkey, a Turkey analyst at Lehigh University in the United States,
doubted there was an "infusion of money into Hamas coffers" from Turkey,
but said aid initiatives were a means of indirect funding.
support, on the one hand, could be moderating," Barkey said. Or, he
said, "the very fact that they have Turkish support may convince them
that they don't have to change their line. I don't have the answer to
that question. I don't think anyone has the answer to that question. I
don't think even Hamas has the answer to that question."
Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed.
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