Turkey Continues to Tolerate Hamas’ Operations Against Israel
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 Hamas 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 Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They also are accused of providing sensitive Israeli security information to Hamas terrorists in Turkey. In essence, the three were able to disrupt IDF and Israeli Police communications by taking down the cellular system in a time of tension or war.
The main suspect, identified only by his initials as R.A., is a software engineer at Israeli telecommunications company Cellcom, which provides services to both the IDF and the Israeli 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 Ministry of Interior 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 West Bank operations. Al-Arouri, a founding commander of Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is a US-designated terrorist with a $5 million reward offered 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 the West Bank. 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 communication 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 Celcom immediately.”
R.A. recruited a colleague Cellcom colleague, known by his initials as S.A., to identify ways to circumvent Cellcom’s information security systems. S.A. acted “with full knowledge that RA 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 (the Cellcom company) 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 and the West Bank and laundering millions of dollars. Turkey’s ties to Hamas terrorists have been extensively documented. 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, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu 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,” Çavuşoğlu said.
“We are always leading efforts to unify them with Fatah,” he added, referring to the Palestinian political group which 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 the members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Over the last dozen years, Israeli-Turkish relations have been fraught, but lately there has been an attempt to ameliorate relations between the two countries due to the volatile geopolitical environment in the greater region. In August, the two countries restored full diplomatic relations by mutually assigning ambassadors after a long period of tension. The Israeli side has been asking for specific initiatives by the Turkish side, such as ending the presence of Hamas leadership in Turkey, before engaging into serious bilateral talks. Turkey has been steadily refusing to expel the Hamas operatives. It seems that Turkey is not yet willing to give up on the Islamist card in its approach in 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 in its territory.
Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine. A version of this article is originally published by IPT.