Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Israel, Turkey and the Hamas agenda

The Israel-Turkey normalisation deal is of great strategic import, not only for Turkey’s regional influence but in threatening Arab management of the Palestinian issue, writes Khaled Okasha

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Hamas movement in Gaza was quick to express its “gratitude” and “deep appreciation” to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and to laud Turkey’s “official and popular efforts to ease the blockade on Gaza” following the reconciliation agreement signed between Israel and Turkey last month. In an official statement released just after the newly appointed Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the agreement he signed with his Israeli counterpart Binyamin Netanyahu, the de facto rulers of Gaza added that these Turkish efforts were “consistent with Turkey’s authentic position towards the Palestinian cause and its support for the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and its solidarity with them”. The official statement stressed the Hamas leaders’ hopes that Turkey would sustain its role in support of the Palestinian cause and its efforts to end the Gaza blockade completely.

That Hamas would release this statement to press agencies worldwide before the Turkish-Israeli agreement to normalise relations had even gone into effect is not the least of the curiosities surrounding that development. For perspective, it is useful to take a look at the official response from Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority (PA) chose to remain totally silent in response to the publicised arrangements concluded between Ankara and Tel Aviv. The agreement, itself, came as no surprise, since the two parties had been hammering it out over the past year, and the many details of the arrangements, which the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas would be aware of, hardly inspire in them the same jubilation officially voiced by Hamas. After all, the PA knows that Hamas is the unmentioned third party to the Turkish-Israeli agreement which is a first step towards Israeli-approved Turkish-style involvement in the Palestinian question via the Gaza gateway. It is perhaps little wonder that, when we take a closer look at the wording of the Hamas statement and official statements from Ankara, there is frequent use of the word “blockade”, which signifies Gaza, and no meaningful use of the word “occupation”.

Naturally, as is often the case in agreements of this sort, what is left unsaid is far more important that what is said. This is all the more true when parties such as Israel and Turkey are involved, especially given the intricacies of their connections with many of the major issues and concerns of the region. Regarding the visible tip, the agreement has officially brought an end to the six-year long rupture in Turkish-Israeli relations precipitated by the Israeli attack against the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara off the coast of Gaza. According to the agreement, Israel has agreed to pay $20 million in compensation to the families of the Turkish victims and to offer a formal apology. This was delivered by Netanyahu and broadcast in Turkish. Israel also agreed to allow Turkey to build, equip and staff a university hospital in Gaza and to build a new electricity generation and a water purification plant. In addition, Turkish government agencies will be able to press ahead with housing development projects and the construction of an industrial zone that would offer many jobs to Palestinians in Gaza.

What has not been given much publicity is the mechanism through which Turkey and Israel will cooperate on the matter of bringing aid into Gaza. Israel opposed the idea of a port, as proposed by Turkey and Hamas, as a way to circumvent the Egyptian-administered Rafah and Karam Abu Salem crossings in order to bring basic necessities into Gaza.

Instead, Israel gave its stamp of approval to aid cargos arriving via the Israeli port of Ashdod and their being shipped overland, under Israeli supervision, at the rate of 850 truckloads a day. This mechanism was evidently adopted on a one-time-only basis on the occasion of the signing of the agreement. Neither side, or Hamas, has given any indication whether or not it will become permanent.

This is only one of the thornier and murkier points of the agreement. If a new arrangement, approved by the three parties, comes into effect it will deliver a blow in two directions. Firstly, it severs aid delivered to Gaza from that destined for the towns and cities of the West Bank. This marks a precedent since the Oslo Accords were signed over two decades ago and in accordance with which the PA is responsible for receiving and distributing aid. Secondly, it clearly targets Egypt directly, as Cairo, in accordance with the Oslo Accords, is responsible for coordinating aid shipments through the Karam Abu Salem crossing and ensuring that they arrive to the legitimate Palestinian Authority which, Cairo maintains, is based in the West Bank. This subject has often been a point of controversy between Egypt and Hamas since the Hamas coup and expulsion of the Fatah authority from Gaza. Hamas also continually tried to turn the Rafah crossing from a crossing point for people, as stipulated under the Oslo Accords, into a transit point for goods.

This would enable Hamas to control the reception and distribution of shipments in Gaza and reap the popularity credits it would gain by performing this role.

Most likely the three partners to the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation deal agreed to remain silent on this point so as not to arouse Egyptian suspicions. The agreement, as a whole, clearly indicates that a complete upheaval in the handling of the Palestinian question is in the works. For the past 20 years since Oslo, and in the arrangements worked out by the International Quartet, Egypt had the Arab mandate to manage this question.

Another long hidden part of the iceberg that was exposed for the first time is the Israeli-Turkish energy connection.

Ankara-Tel Aviv relations in this realm can soon be expected to experience an enormous boost, especially now that Yildirim has announced that normalising economic relations with Israel will take priority in the normalisation process.

Energy officials from the two countries are currently putting their heads together to draw up a number of mutually profitable deals to exploit offshore natural gas fields in the Mediterranean. Israel, which stepped up drilling in its offshore gas fields last year in order to become a net gas exporter, is in the market for outlets. It now has eight major fields that are poised to serve its gas exporting ambitions: Tamar 1 and 2 west of Haifa, Leviathan 1 and 2 west of Jaffa, Sara and Myra west of Netanya, Mary offshore of Gaza, Shimon near Ashdod, and Karish west of Haifa. Not long ago, the discovery of a ninth field was announced: Yashay near Cyprus.

Israel has been eying Turkey, above all, as the middleman for transporting Israeli gas to the EU and the West. It is confident in Turkey’s role as a transit point and a centre where oil pipelines from the north, east and south converge with their precious cargos ready to be pumped westward. But Israel and Turkey had already been cooperating in the natural gas and crude oil business since 2013, in the shadows of the war against terrorism. Naturally, this did not take the form of formal trade agreements as the business was being conducted through black market companies that traded in stolen produce from the fields seized by Daesh (the Islamic State group) in Iraq and Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq. The commerce yielded enormous profits for all parties. Of course, the Turkish and Israeli governments would not only have closed their eyes to the illicit trade, they also would have had to help facilitate it in various ways during the past three years. We are not talking about some small-time smuggling operations here and there. Intelligence agencies have monitored commerce that generated billions of dollars of profits of which both Israel and Turkey raked in a considerable share. Moreover, the profits also enabled Daesh and the Peshmerga to take quantitative leaps forward in their financial and armaments capacities while the commerce pumped fuel into the huge machinery of warfare that has engulfed and engaged so many parties in the region.

Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal arrived in Istanbul 25 June, right on the eve of the announcement of the Turkish-Israeli normalisation pact. He held several meetings with Turkish intelligence officials and two meetings with Erdogan, one of which was attended by Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. This brings us to two extremely important points.

The first concerns three missing Israeli soldiers in Gaza: Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin whose bodies are presumed to be in Hamas custody and Avera Mengistu who went missing in Gaza and about whom Hamas has divulged no information regarding his whereabouts or wellbeing. Turkey is keen to strike a deal that secures the release of the three and their return to Israel. An accomplishment of this sort would give a great boost to Turkey’s kudos among the Israelis.

At the same time, the deal, which would probably offer some rewards for Hamas, would boost Turkey’s credentials as a mediator, which Erdogan “personally” desires out of his eagerness to turn the Gaza question into a purely Turkish preserve that reflects the scope and strength of his influence.

The second and equally crucial point is related to the first and concerns the seething tensions between Hamas political officials and the commanders of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. Since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008, the Qassam Brigades have been the de facto centre of power in Gazan cities and, over the years, have been gradually drawing support away from the political leaders and in favour of the military ones. Indeed, it is virtually common knowledge in the corridors of power in Gaza that the Qassam Brigades military leaders have a final say on strategic matters and that they are very uncomfortable with the Turkish-Israeli normalisation deal. Moreover, they have grown increasingly fidgety in light of reports that among the hidden points in the agreement lurks a Turkish commitment to issue a pledge, in collaboration with the Hamas political wing, to halt all forms of “military” resistance against Israel, which would effectively constitute a full truce that would then lead to a process of disarmament. This would immediately jeopardise the military wing’s influence and control over the people of Gaza and their lives, not to mention the vast sources of money it controls.

Certainly, Meshal would have addressed this dilemma with officials in Istanbul and his demands for support and assurances for the political wing are only one of the shady sides of the machinations involved in producing the “truce” agreement that Turkey is banking on.

If these plans pan out without serious hitches, Turkey — or more precisely the Erdogan regime — will have succeeded in leveraging itself into becoming the key player and chief sponsor of the “Arabs’ central cause”. This would be icing on the cake of the significant political and economic gains acquired by the two parties to the normalisation agreement plus Hamas.

Still, the question remains as to how other parties in the region will react, especially those that would see the net gains scored by those three parties not just as net losses to themselves but also as a serious threat — or as multiple threats — that necessitate countermeasures.

The writer is director of the Cairo-based National Centre for Security Studies.

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