Turkey hosted Hamas leader amid growing criticism over inaction in Gaza

Istanbul/Washington — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh and his delegation last weekend in Istanbul amid growing criticism in Turkey of his government’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war.

There was no news conference after the meeting.  Erdogan’s office released a statement on the topics discussed with Haniyeh, who lives in exile in Qatar.

According to the statement, Erdogan and the Hamas leader talked about “Israel’s attacks on Palestinian territory, especially Gaza, what needs to be done to ensure adequate and uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, and a fair and lasting peace process in the region.”

Erdogan also emphasized the importance of Palestinians acting in unity, which he called “the most robust response to Israel and the way to victory go through unity and integrity.”

In another statement, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) revealed that a Hamas delegation, including key members of the militant group, was present in the meeting.

Haniyeh’s visit came at a time when Erdogan’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war and his support for the Palestinian people were questioned by the Islamist New Welfare Party, which came in third nationally in the local elections last month.

On April 9, Turkey’s Trade Ministry announced export restrictions of several product groups to Israel as a response growing calls in Turkey for a boycott.

Some analysts think that Erdogan’s meeting with Haniyeh is to consolidate his base.

“AKP and Erdogan have been very worn out recently regarding the Palestine issue after it was revealed that there was trade with Israel,” Erhan Kelesoglu, an Istanbul-based Middle East expert, told VOA.

“Meeting with Hamas leaders actually provides President [Erdogan] with the opportunity to refresh his image before the public. It shows that he is behind the Palestinian cause and Hamas,” Kelesoglu added.

On April 17, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan went to Doha, Qatar, where he met Haniyeh.

Later in a joint news conference with his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Fidan said that Hamas has accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders.

“They have told me that following the establishment of the Palestinian state, Hamas would no longer need an armed wing and they would continue as a political party,” Fidan said.

Some experts view Ankara’s recent involvement with Hamas as its intent to play a mediator role.

“Turkey intends to reassert its influence in the region by playing a mediator role, particularly as Qatar’s mediating capacity reaches its limits, and Turkey has recently emerged as one of the intermediary countries in relations with Iran,” Evren Balta, a non-resident scholar at Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, wrote in an analysis for MEI’s blog. 

“However, it is unlikely that either Israel or the United States will agree to the role that Turkey wishes to play or see the dissolution of the military wing of Hamas as a sufficient move to engage with the organization,” Balta added.  

Israel’s reaction

Following the meeting on April 20, Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz shared a photo of Erdogan shaking hands with Haniyeh on his X account.

“Erdogan, shame on you,” Katz wrote in a post in Turkish. He also listed his allegations of “rape, murder, and the desecration of corpses” committed by “the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Hamas shares the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Erdogan’s AKP also backed in the past.

Oncu Keceli, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, reacted to Katz’s statement on X, saying, “It is the Israeli authorities who should be ashamed. They have massacred nearly 35,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.”

“Türkiye’s priority is to bring the massacre in Gaza to an end, and the establishment of a Palestinian state to ensure lasting peace in our region,” Keceli added.

More than 34,000 people have been killed, Palestinian health authorities say, since the beginning of the war in Gaza last October.

Comparison with Turkish militia

On April 17, in his ruling AKP’s parliamentary group meeting, Erdogan accused critics of his handling of the Israel-Gaza war of slandering him, his party, his government, and the Turkish Republic.

“Some of our steps may not be visible. We may not be able to explain some of what we do. However, those who question our sensitivity on Palestine will sooner or later be embarrassed and disgraced,” Erdogan said.

“I say it very clearly and openly: Hamas is the same as Kuva-yi Milliye in Turkey during the war of independence,” Erdogan added.

He also called Hamas “a group of mujahideen waging a battle to protect its lands and people” in the past after the Oct. 7 attack. Mujahideen is an Arabic word meaning those who fight for Islam.

The U.S., the U.K. and European Union have listed Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Kuva-yi Milliye, founded in 1918, is the name of the Turkish militia forces that fought in the early period of Turkey’s War of Independence and was later organized under the command of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Erdogan’s statement stirred a debate in Turkey as the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) rejected such a similarity between Turkish national forces and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

“Identifying Hamas with Kuva-yi Milliye means ‘the Palestinian cause started with Hamas.’ However, everyone knows very well that the [Palestinian] struggle is a struggle that has lasted for decades. And it certainly did not start with Hamas,” Oguz Kaan Salici, CHP’s Istanbul deputy and a Turkish Parliament’s Commission of Foreign Affairs member, told VOA.

CHP calls for a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.

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