Turkey is allowing senior Hamas operatives to plot attacks against Israel from Istanbul as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plays host to the terrorist group’s leaders.
Transcripts of Israeli police interrogations with suspects show that senior Hamas operatives are using Turkey’s largest city to direct operations in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, including an assassination attempt earlier this year on the mayor of Jerusalem.
Israel has repeatedly told Turkey that Hamas is using its territory to plan attacks, but last weekend Mr Erdogan met Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, and Turkish intelligence agents maintain close contact with the group’s operatives in Istanbul. “We will keep on supporting our brothers in Palestine,” Mr Erdogan said.
Turkey is already facing questions from Western allies over its support for extremist rebels in northern Syria and over its commitment to Nato after buying a Russian missile system.
Turkey agreed in a US-brokered 2015 deal with Israel to stop Hamas planning attacks from its soil but has consistently failed to honour the agreement, Israeli officials said.
The issue has fuelled hostility between the two states, even though they maintain diplomatic relations. “Israel is extremely concerned that Turkey is allowing Hamas terrorists to operate from its territory, in planning and engaging in terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians,” its foreign ministry said.
The Turkish government has offered Hamas safe harbour in Istanbul even as Arab states such as Saudi Arabia have distanced themselves from the group and moved closer to Israel. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the EU and US. Its armed wing has been designated a terror group by the UK.
Turkey has proved such a welcoming environment for Hamas that the group’s deputy leader, who has a $5 million US government bounty on his head, travels freely to the country without fear of arrest. A dozen Hamas operatives have moved to Istanbul from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in the past year, according to Israeli and Egyptian intelligence records.
Among them is the former leader of a suicide bombing cell responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks in Israel in the Nineties.
In one failed plot in February, a Hamas official ordered a Palestinian to assassinate Jerusalem’s mayor, an MP from Benjamin Netanyahu’s party or Israel’s chief of police. The plot failed. In another case, a Hamas operative offered to pay $20,000 to the family of any would-be suicide bomber.
A Turkish diplomatic source denied Hamas was planning attacks from Turkey. He said the group was “not a terrorist organisation” but a legitimate Palestinian political party. Hamas denied planning attacks from Turkish soil and dismissed Israel’s complaints as “baseless allegations” designed to damage political relations with Turkey.
“Hamas’s resistance activities are conducted only in the land of occupied Palestine,” a Hamas spokesman said. Leading Hamas operatives and alleged linked businesses did not respond to requests for interviews.