Israeli officials confirmed to Fox News on Friday that Ankara is in the process of issuing citizenship – and subsequently passports – to at least a dozen members of Hamas, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and other countries.
"In overlooking these designations and thousands of its victims, who were injured and murdered by Hamas terrorists, Turkey is actively supporting it both financially and logistically," a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington told Fox News.
Furthermore, Turkey allows Hamas's headquarters to operate on Turkish soil and is actively granting citizenship to Hamas operatives in Turkey, the spokesperson said.
"All of which enables terrorists to travel freely and easily around the world, using their Turkish passports," the spokesperson said.
Most have already been granted the coveted Turkish citizenship and passport, according to The Telegraph, and along with their families are already living in Turkey – some under alias names.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received the leader of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, and the group's second-in-command Saleh al-Arouri, who is wanted by the U.S. government for a $5 million bounty and a delegation of Turkey-based Hamas top brass last weekend, according to a Turkish government statement this week.
"Israel is appalled by the Turkish government's support of Hamas, a notorious terror organization. President Erdogan's continued outreach to Hamas terrorist organization proves that Turkey has chosen to embrace violence and terror," the Israeli statement said. "Turkey's policy will continue to isolate it from the international community and damage global efforts to fight terrorism, terror financing, and radicalization."
The meeting, and Arouri's warm welcome, also especially irked U.S. political leaders, sources told Fox News, given that the Department of the Treasury designated him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2015 after he praised the "heroic operation" of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in 2014, which sparked a brutal war.
In addition, the U.S. hasn't held back on its condemnation of Erdogan's brazen meeting, either.
The State Department said this week that it "strongly objected" to the hosting of Hamas in Istanbul, pointing out that it was the second time this year that Erdogan feted leaders of the Islamist outfit.
"President Erdogan's continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza," the U.S. statement said. "We continue to raise our concerns about the Turkish government's relationship with Hamas at the highest levels."
Turkey's foreign ministry was quick to "fully reject" the U.S. blowback, charging Washington with "serving Israel's interests" rather than using its clout to foster a "balanced policy" the help dispel the long-running Israeli-Palestinian feud.
"Declaring the legitimate representative of Hamas, who came to power after winning democratic elections in Gaza and is an important reality of the region, as a terrorist will not be of any contribution to efforts for peace and stability in the region," Ankara stated.
In a statement issued to Fox News on Friday by a spokesperson for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, Ankara hit back even harder at the U.S. condemnation.
"Branding as a terrorist the legitimate representative of Hamas, which has come to power in Gaza through democratic elections and which constitutes an important reality of the region, will not contribute to efforts geared towards peace and stability in the region," American officials said. "Moreover, a country which openly supports the PKK, that features on their list of terrorist organizations and hosts the ringleader of the FETO has no right whatsoever to say anything to third countries on this subject."
FETO is a term Turkey gives to the Gulen movement, which it accuses of orchestrating the 2016 failed coup.
So what's behind the Turkey's backing of Hamas?
"It is a way for Turkey to enhance its influence over the group, which for the longest time has had closer ties to Iran, Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the Center for Global Policy, told Fox News. "The Turkish-Iranian competition for influence in the Arab world, especially over Islamist actors, has been heating for several years now."
With Turkish passports, Hamas members could potentially move around the world more easily and carry out terror attacks more readily.
Issuing the passports was not an impulsive decision, Bokhari said. Turkish officials likely determined how the United State might react, he said.
"So, if it did go ahead and issue these passports, then its likely calculus is that the U.S. would not push too hard against the move," Bokhari said. "The question is, how far is D.C. is willing to press Ankara on this matter."
Zacharia Nijab is one Hamas operative identified as having been granted citizenship, despite reports he commanded a plot to assassinate several senior Israeli leaders. The Turkish government has dismissed the reports as baseless claims, highlighting that Hamas does not operate beyond the Palestinian Territories and "does not engage in terror activities," yet Israeli officials insist they have irrefutable proof, and documentation, of the citizenship scheme.
"With Turkish passports, Hamas members could potentially move around the world more easily and carry out terror attacks more readily," Riza Kumar, a researcher for the Counter Extremism Project said.
The EU requires a short stay visa for Turkish passport holders, but there are more than 78 countries that do not require a visa for a Turkish passport holder, she said.
"It is possible that providing passports to members of Hamas could lead to an uptick in terrorist activity against U.S. allies," Kumar said.
During his nearly 18 years in power, Erdogan has offered growing support for Hamas members, making Turkey the second-largest Hamas base after Gaza
And while Ankara's support of the terrorist group, which was slapped with the label by the U.S. in 1993, is seemingly growing more apparent, it is nothing new.
The European Union also gave Hamas, which controls the beset Gaza Strip, the official terrorist stamp in 2003. However, only its armed wing – the Qassem Brigades – has been designated as terrorists by the United Kingdom.
By contrast, Turkey views Hamas as a lawful political movement of which its top brass can freely travel to and from without fear of apprehension, even Arouri with his U.S. bounty, and scores of top-tier members are reported to live in Turkey. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, consistently vocalizes its support for Palestinians in the besieged Gaza.
Aykan Erdemir, a senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said that AKP and Hamas "have roots in the Muslim Brotherhood and share a similar ideology built on an anti-Western and anti-Semitic worldview."
"During his nearly 18 years in power, Erdogan has offered growing support for Hamas members, making Turkey the second-largest Hamas base after Gaza," he told Fox News. "Since Erdogan does not see Hamas as a terrorist organization, he has not felt the need to hide his support,"
Furthermore, Israel has accused Turkey's leadership of shifting finances and resources to Hamas under the guise of charities.
In December 2019, The Telegraph – citing Israeli authorities – reported that Turkey was turning a "blind eye" to Hamas members planning attacks on Israel, from the safety of Turkish turf and claimed that operatives in Istanbul were seeking suicide bombing recruits, offering to pay their families some $20,000 for carrying out attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The State Department's unprecedented calling out of Erdogan for his latest Hamas meeting is a sign that Washington's patience is wearing thin with Erdogan's policies
Subsequently, Israeli officials at the time called for Ankara to sever its ties to Hamas, shutter the Istanbul headquarters of Hamas, and address concerns that the NATO member was being used as a base to launch potentially deadly attacks -- a call that has been far from heralded.
Nonetheless, Hazem Qasem, a Hamas spokesman, has repeatedly dismissed allegations that Turkey has been used to plot assaults. He has framed the claims as "baseless" that are aimed to hurt Hamas-Turkey ties, and maintained a position that all planning takes place in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
Assessments dating back more than six years underscore flourishing liaisons between Turkey and Hamas.
"Since the fall of Mohamed Morsi's government in Egypt in July 2013 and the cooled relations between Hamas and Iran in context of the Syrian civil war, Turkey, joined by Qatar, has been heralded as a primary funder of Hamas," surmised a report from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "While there is some debate over the exact sums, it seems as though Turkey has at least pledged to provide Hamas between $250-300 million annually."
In 2015, Turkey -- in a US-brokered deal with Israel -- agreed to stop Hamas from planning attacks from its soil, but Israel has contended that Ankara has routinely failed to live up to the accord.
The office of the military wing of Hamas in Istanbul has been "stepping up the movement's terror activities at universities in the West Bank" and that the Turkish Hamas office also handled Hamas engineer Fadi al-Batsh, who was assassinated in Malaysia in April 2018, according to a 2018 analysis published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His family accused Mossad, the Israeli secret service, although Israel denied any involvement.
"Israel has been closely monitoring the connections between Turkey and Hamas since the Marmara convoy incident in May 2010," the report continued, referring to an incident in which 10 Turkish "activists" were killed by Israeli forces in international waters. "And the discovery of close links between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the then-chairman of Hamas' political bureau Khaled Mashal."
The report further alleged that the Istanbul Hamas office "works closely with the West Bank headquarters of Hamas located in Gaza and directing terror attacks in the West Bank."
And at a time when other Arab states have summoned stronger links with Israel -- namely in the face of a common enemy, Iran, and thus stepped back from overt Hamas support – Ankara is seemingly moving in the other direction.
But despite the apparent tensions between Israel and Turkey concerning Hamas and developments in the West Bank and Gaza, the two countries maintain strong diplomatic relations. More than a dozen direct flights typically go between Tel Aviv and Istanbul on a daily basis, and trade between the two surpasses $8 billion each year – although experts contend that relations were much tighter just over a decade ago, with a series of spats since 2009 leading to a steady deterioration.
Most recently this month, Erdogan – who observers say has sought to project an image of a Palestinian human rights champion and leader for all Muslims worldwide – threatened that his country might suspend official links with the UAE after it formalized diplomatic relations with Israel.
And whether Turkey's flagrant embrace of Hamas will have any further bearing on its rapport with Washington, remains to be seen. While President Trump routinely touts his robust relationship with his Ankara counterpart, the two NATO allies have been at odds on a number of issues, including Ankara's purchasing of Russian S-400 defense systems and Turkish hostility toward U.S.-backed forces in Syria.
"The State Department's unprecedented calling out of Erdogan for his latest Hamas meeting is a sign that Washington's patience is wearing thin with Erdogan's policies," Erdemir added. "And as history has shown, supporting jihadists is a boomerang that can ultimately hurt the patrons. Turkey is home to a plethora of jihadist movements and networks, which are likely to pose growing security threats to Turkey as well."