Turkey's support for Hamas agents who tried to topple Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority is putting Erdogan in a pickle.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service claimed on Aug. 18 that it thwarted a Hamas-led coup in the West Bank designed to topple Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. The internal security agency said it arrested more than 90 Hamas operatives, confiscated weapons, and seized $170,000 in cash. The Israelis also fingered the man they believe to be at the center of the plot: Turkey-based Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri.
The Israelis have not disclosed all the details about the Hamas plot they say they disrupted in the West Bank. However, the operation, allegedly coordinated by Arouri, appears to be aimed at first toppling the PA government in Ramallah and then deploying terrorists to inflict mass causalities on Israeli targets. Abbas ordered an inquiry into the plot, calling it a "real danger to the unity of the Palestinian people and its future."
Arouri’s name came up recently as a person of interest for Israeli security officials, who raised the possibility that he masterminded the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens in the West Bank earlier this summer. But even before that, he had quietly become a central player among Hamas’s leaders outside of the Palestinian territories. In the early 1990s, Arouri was one of the founders of Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in the West Bank. He languished in an Israeli jail until May 2010, when the Israelis released him due to the expiration of his detention order. Following his release, Arouri moved to Damascus — but when ties soured with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the Syrian civil war, he is believed to have relocated to Turkey in early 2012.
In Turkey, Arouri has attended high-level Hamas meetings with the outgoing prime minister and newly elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One senior Israeli intelligence official described him to me last year as "one of the most important leaders of Hamas," involved in everything from organizing the group’s finances to logistics.
But Arouri is not alone in Turkey. In 2011, Israel released 10 Hamas operatives to Turkey as part of the prisoner exchange that saw Hamas release kidnapped Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit. Since then, Hamas men have come and gone. But one thing is clear: The Hamas members who remain in Turkey are active. They attend local universities, join Turkish organizations, and play a role in its politics, and also appear to travel freely into and out of the country.
Take Mahmoud Attoun. In the early morning of Dec. 13, 1992, Attoun and a group of other Hamas terrorists abducted IDF Sgt. Maj. Nissim Toledano, a 29-year-old father of two young children, on his walk home from work in the Israeli town of Lod. After his arrest on June 3, 1993, Attoun, then 23, was sentenced to a life term in Israeli prison. He was released in 2011.
Today, Attoun is a rising star within Hamas. He frequently advocates for Hamas around the region, traveling to Tunisia this April to speak with students at the University of Sfax about the Palestinian militant organization. He appeared on a special program in 2012 on al-Quds TV honoring the freed Hamas prisoners, where he openly acknowledged his presence in Turkey. Attoun is also actively involved with the Hikmet Bilim Dostluk ve Yardimlasma Dernegi (HIKMET), a Turkish NGO associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and has spoken at one of their events.
There is also Taysir Suleiman. The Hamas operative was convicted of kidnapping and murdering an Israeli soldier in 1993, and sentenced to life in prison in Israel’s high-security Nafha Prison in the Negev Desert. In 2011, he was also shipped abroad in the Shalit deal; today, he openly notes on his Facebook profile that he lives in Istanbul, and he appeared alongside Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Meshaal in a video dated March 2012 in the city. That same summer, he traveled to Southeast Asia and Tunisia, where he presented slide shows to students about the al-Qassam Brigades. In October 2013, Suleiman was featured in an hour-long special on the al-Quds TV station celebrating his release from Israeli prison.
Along with Arouri, Suleiman, and Attoun, there appear to be at least nine other Hamas figures living in Turkey, based on open-source information. None of them were identified by the Israelis in the alleged plot to overthrow Abbas in the West Bank.
However, given that the plot was allegedly hatched out of Turkey, the presence of Arouri and the other Hamas figures prompt some troubling questions about Erdogan’s pro-Hamas policies.
Over the past decade, the relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara has grown increasingly frosty. As far back as 2004, when Israel assassinated Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin, Erdogan accused Israel of "state terrorism." There was also the ill-fated Turkish flotilla to Gaza in 2010, which resulted in a clash between activists on the Mavi Marmara and Israeli commandos on the high seas, leaving 10 dead, and caused a crisis in Turkish-Israeli ties. Erdogan’s anti-Israel sentiment has reached a fever pitch during the current Gaza war, when on July 18 he compared Israel’s operation to the "barbarism" of Hitler. Erdogan also appears intent on transforming that rhetoric into policy: He has maintained a strong working and personal relationship Khaled Meshaal, who has visited Turkey at least 10 times since 2006, and reportedly provides the organization will millions of dollars in annual aid.
Erdogan’s support for Hamas is ideological; his Justice and Development Party (AKP) undoubtedly identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood. But his support is also politically strategic — he has used the Palestinian cause as a tool to gain votes among conservative Turks, and also to gain regional clout among pro-Palestinian sympathizers across the Middle East.
While this strategy has led to short-term success — reflected in Erdogan’s victory in the popular vote for president — the alleged plot to overthrow the PA government in Ramallah suggests the Turkish government has entered dangerous new territory. To say the least, if a plot was hatched out of Turkey to bring down the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, it would appear decidedly anti-Palestinian. And while the Turks deny any knowledge of the plot, it could still put a dent in the AKP’s pro-Palestinian bona fides.
But this could be the least of Turkey’s problems. Turkey’s unabashed embrace of Hamas is a decidedly awkward policy for a NATO member state and a long-standing U.S. ally to adopt. It’s still unclear whether NATO or the State Department is prepared to broach the subject with Erdogan. But with about a dozen Hamas figures on the loose in Turkey, including a top operative who may have tried to bring down the West Bank’s government, the issue is growing increasingly difficult for the West to ignore.