Turkey’s ties to Hamas risk hindering normalization with Israel

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Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara on Monday that relations would be normalized if Israel were to halt “its illegal actions, such as annexations against Palestine.” (AFP)
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Members of the Stop Erdogan Now group protest outside the European Parliament in Brussels. The group demanded EU sanctions against the Turkish president. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 January 2021

Turkey’s ties to Hamas risk hindering normalization with Israel

  • Ankara’s support for Hamas as well as its prioritization of Israel’s Palestine policies pose further challenges to already fragile relations with Israel

ANKARA: Amid speculations about a possible Turkish-Israeli rapprochement in the foreseeable future, Israel refuses to normalize relations with Turkey or return its envoy to Ankara until the activities of Hamas’ military wing in Istanbul end, Israeli news site Ynet reported on Monday.

This prerequisite prompted Ankara to bring forward its own conditions to reconcile with Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara on Monday that relations would be normalized if Israel were to halt “its illegal actions, such as annexations against Palestine.”

Ankara’s support for Hamas as well as its prioritization of Israel’s Palestine policies pose further challenges to already fragile relations with Israel. Hundreds of Hamas operatives allegedly live in Turkey.

If both countries are sincere about restoring diplomatic ties, it is still unknown to what extent they are willing to give concessions on these red lines and at what cost.  

In 2018, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel to protest against the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, while the move was reciprocated by Israel who also recalled its own envoy in Ankara. 

In early 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted in Istanbul Ismail Haniyeh, political chief of Hamas, and Saleh Al-Arouri, the group’s top military commander, who has a $5 million US bounty on his head, prompting objections from Israel and Washington.  

While Turkey considers Hamas a legitimate political movement that is elected democratically in Gaza, Hamas is seen as a terror organization by the US, EU and Israel. 

In October 2020, The Times claimed that the military branch of Hamas had set up a secret office in Istanbul to remotely plot cyberattacks against its foes and that Turkey even granted Turkish citizenship and passports to dozens of high-ranking Hamas members to facilitate their travel in Europe. However, Ankara denied the claims. 

Turkey categorically denies providing sanctuary to a Hamas office in Istanbul. 

Since 2015, Israel has been asking Ankara to crack down on Hamas operatives who are settled there. It was also known as one of the preconditions for Turkey’s entry into the Western coalition against Daesh. 

Selin Nasi, a researcher on Turkey-Israel relations from Bogazici University in Istanbul, recalls that Ankara had expelled Al-Arouri prior to the reconciliation deal of 2016 and pledged to limit the activities of Hamas offices in Turkey.

“If Ankara agrees to downplay its support for Hamas, this might pave the way for a thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations. For Israelis, Turkey providing shelter to Hamas members in the country has been a major bone of contention. Because they see Hamas as a terror organization, so this is a national security matter,” she told Arab News. 

A letter penned by Haniyeh late in December and sent to several presidents of Islamic countries, including Erdogan, recently made headlines in Turkey, as he warned the Turkish president against any overture to Israel, saying that any steps toward normalization would benefit “Zionism.” 

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, thinks Erdogan’s motivation is mainly ideological due to the well-known affinity with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements, but perhaps also partly political. 

“Turkey formally supports two states, whereas Hamas rejects Israel’s existence. Based on formal policy, Turkey should be much more supportive of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas than Hamas, and that’s manifestly not the case,” he told Arab News. 

Makovsky thinks that supporting Hamas is not a vote-getter in the traditional sense because Hamas has been rated very negatively by the Turkish public. 

According to Pew Research Center’s most recent survey from 2014, Turks hold a negative view of Hamas, with 80 percent disapproving of it and only 8 percent approving the group. 

“The one political benefit Erdogan derives from supporting Hamas — and it’s not insignificant — is that it helps to keep the Islamist portion of his ruling Justice and Development Party firmly bonded to the party itself, rather than drifting over to the Islamist rival Felicity Party,” Makovsky said.   

According to Makovsky, it would be unthinkable for the Israelis to re-exchange ambassadors when they are convinced that Hamas is conducting operational planning from Turkey.  

“I doubt Israel is eager to exchange ambassadors with Turkey in any case. From Israel’s point of view, it would simply be an unearned gift that would help facilitate Erdogan’s relations with US President Joe Biden,” he said.

He added: “Were Turkey to expel Hamas and pledge to cease receiving visits from the likes of Hamas former leader Khaled Meshaal and senior Hamas figure Al-Arouri, Israel would resume ambassadorial-level relations in a nano-second.”

Researcher Nasi thinks that Ankara is equally concerned about the domestic implications of revamping support for the Muslim Brotherhood, at a time when the Palestinian issue is at an impasse and, even worse, it is no longer on the international agenda.

“From a strategic perspective, the cost of Turkey’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy seems to have exceeded its benefits, undermining Turkey’s relations with Egypt and the Gulf countries, resulting in regional isolation,” she said. “Ankara has reached a critical point where it needs to decide whether or not to prioritize geopolitical interests over ideology.”

According to Nasi, recent statements by the Turkish foreign minister suggest that the government is trying to find a diplomatic opening by reframing the conflict around the Palestinian issue and shifting the emphasis to Israel’s partial annexation of the West Bank. 

“Indeed, the signing of the Abraham Accords last summer practically shelved Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Therefore, the pre-condition that Cavusoglu mentioned on Monday has been already fulfilled,” she said. 

For Nasi, at the end of the day, it comes down to whether Turkey is willing to take a step toward strategic reorientation.


UN Security Council sanctions top Houthi security official for rape and torture

Updated 26 February 2021

UN Security Council sanctions top Houthi security official for rape and torture

  • Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin's acts “threaten peace of Yemen”
  • “Zabin himself directly inflicted torture in some cases,” the council said

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on a top Houthi security official in the Yemeni city of Sanaa, citing his prominent role in intimidations, systematic arrests, detentions, torture, sexual violence “and rape against politically active women.”
A resolution adopted by a vote of 14-0, with Russia abstaining, said Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin, director of the Criminal Investigation Department in Sanaa, was directly or by virtue of his authority responsible for using multiple places of detention including police stations, prisons and detention centers for human rights abuses.
“In these sites, women, including at least one minor, were forcibly disappeared, repeatedly interrogated, raped, tortured, denied timely medical treatment and subjected to forced labor,” the council said in imposing a travel ban and arms embargo. “Zabin himself directly inflicted torture in some cases.”
It added that Zabin “engaged in acts that threaten the peace, security and stability of Yemen, including violations of applicable international humanitarian law and human rights abuses in Yemen.”
Resolution 2564 strongly condemned “violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, as well as human rights abuses, including those involving conflict-related sexual violence in Houthi-controlled areas and recruitment and use of children in armed conflict across Yemen, as recorded in the Panel of Experts’ final report.”
The council welcomed the formation of the new cabinet of Yemen’s government under the provisions of the Riyadh Agreement, calling “for the full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement (and) calling for the swift resumption of talks between the parties, in full engagement with UN mediation efforts.”
Council members also condemned “in the strongest terms” last year’s attack on Aden that killed 27 civilians, including a Yemeni deputy minister and three humanitarian and health personnel.
The council strongly condemned the ongoing escalation of violence in Yemen’s oil-rich central province of Marib between the Houthis and government forces, and the continuation of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The resolution stressed the need “for de-escalation across Yemen and a nationwide cease-fire.”
Regarding the imminent disaster posed by the Houthis’ refusal to allow a UN inspection of the Safer oil tanker, which has been moored off the war-torn country’s coast and is loaded with more than a million barrels of crude oil at risk of leaking, council members emphasized the environmental and humanitarian risk and “the need, without delay, for access of UN officials to inspect and maintain (the) tanker, which is located in the Houthi-controlled north of Yemen.”
They stressed the militia’s responsibility for the situation and for not responding to this “major environmental and humanitarian risk,” underscoring the need for the Houthis “to urgently facilitate unconditional and safe access for UN experts to conduct an assessment and repair mission without further delay.”
Meanwhile US President Joe Biden, during a phone call with King Salman, commended Saudi Arabia’s support for UN efforts to reach a truce and cease-fire in Yemen.
King Salman said Saudi Arabia was keen to reach a comprehensive political solution in Yemen and to achieve security and development for its people.
The two sides discussed Iran’s behavior in the region, its destabilizing activities and its support for terrorist groups.
The Arab coalition thwarted a second Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia just hours after it had destroyed a drone launched by the militia toward Khamis Mushait.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the militia’s attempt to target civilians in Saudi Arabia.
Heavy fighting between rebels and government forces in Marib has killed at least 27 people, tribal leaders and security officials said on Friday.
(With AP)

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US airstrike in Syria sent ‘unambiguous message’: White House

Updated 26 February 2021

US airstrike in Syria sent ‘unambiguous message’: White House

  • The Pentagon said Thursday's strike was in response for a series of rocket attacks targeting US soldiers in Iraq
  • Psaki said Biden's aim was for "deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq"

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE: The United States sent an "unambiguous message" with an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia in eastern Syria, the White House said Friday.
President Joe Biden is "sending an unambiguous message that he's going to act to protect Americans and when threats are posed he has the right to take an action at the time and the manner of his choosing," Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
The Pentagon said Thursday's strike, which according to a Syrian war monitoring group killed 22 militia members, was in response for a series of rocket attacks targeting US soldiers in Iraq.
One of those strikes, on a military complex in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil on February 15, killed a civilian and a foreign contractor working with coalition forces, and wounded several US contractors and a soldier.
Psaki said the decision behind the strike was "deliberative" and that Biden's aim was for "deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq."
Addressing criticism from some in Congress that Biden should have sought legislators' authority before ordering the strike, Psaki said "there was a thorough legal process and review in advance."


Dubai extends COVID-19 precautionary measures to beginning of Ramadan

Updated 26 February 2021

Dubai extends COVID-19 precautionary measures to beginning of Ramadan

  • Restaurants and cafes will continue to close by 1.00 a.m and pubs/bars will remain closed
  • The capacity of indoor seated venues, including cinemas and entertainment and sports venues, is limited to 50%

LONDON: A series of precautionary measures introduced in Dubai at the beginning of February to curb the spread of the coronavirus will stay in place till the beginning of Ramadan, Dubai Media Office announced on Friday.
Ramadan is due to start in the third week of April 2021.
The measures include the capacity of indoor seated venues, including cinemas and entertainment and sports venues, being limited to 50 percent, and shopping malls, hotel establishments and swimming pools and private beaches in hotels operating at 70 percent capacity.
Restaurants and cafes will continue to close by 1.00 a.m and pubs/bars will remain closed.
Monitoring and inspection campaigns will continue and tough penalties will be imposed for violations.
The decision to extend the measures was taken after data showed that they were effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

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Vehicle-carrier ship hit by explosion in Gulf of Oman

Updated 26 February 2021

Vehicle-carrier ship hit by explosion in Gulf of Oman

  • “It remains a realistic possibility that the event was the result of asymmetric activity by Iranian military,” Dryad said
  • The US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said it was aware of the incident and monitoring the situation

DUBAI: A Bahamas-flagged ship, the MV HELIOS RAY, was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) and a maritime security firm said on Friday.
The cause of the explosion is not clear.
“Investigations are ongoing. Vessel and crew are safe,” the UKMTO’s advisory notice said, advising vessels in the area to exercise caution.
The incident occurred at 2040 GMT, it said, but gave no details about a possible cause.
Maritime security firm Dryad Global said the MV HELIOS RAY was a vehicle carrier owned by Helios Ray Ltd, an Israeli firm registered in the Isle of Man. The ship was en route to Singapore from Dammam in Saudi Arabia.
A spokesman for Israel’s Transportation Ministry said it had no information about an Israeli vessel having been struck in the Gulf.
A company with the name Helios Ray Ltd. is incorporated in the Isle of Man. The ship was managed by Stamco Ship Management, Refinitiv ship tracking data showed. Stamco Ship Management declined to comment when contacted by phone by Reuters.
“Whilst details regarding the incident remain unclear it remains a realistic possibility that the event was the result of asymmetric activity by Iranian military,” Dryad said in a report on the incident.
Refinitiv data shows the ship has set Dubai as its current destination.
The US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said it was aware of the incident and monitoring the situation.
Tensions have risen in the Gulf region since the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers.
Washington has blamed Iran for a number of attacks on shipping in strategic Gulf waters, including on four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, in May 2019. Iran distanced itself from those attacks.
In early January, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Gulf waters and detained its crew amid tensions between Tehran and US ally Seoul over Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks due to US sanctions.
In 2018, 21 million barrels per day of oil flowed through the Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, equivalent to about 21% of global petroleum liquids demand at the time, according to the US Energy Information Administration.


UN court to try Hezbollah member for Lebanon attacks

Updated 26 February 2021

UN court to try Hezbollah member for Lebanon attacks

  • Hariri and 21 others died in a massive suicide bomb explosion in Beirut in early 2005
  • Ayyash was one of four suspects tried by the Netherlands-based court

THE HAGUE: A fugitive Hezbollah suspect will go on trial in June accused of three attacks on Lebanese politicians in the mid-2000s, a UN-backed tribunal announced on Friday.
Salim Ayyash, 57, will be tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which in December sentenced him to life in prison for the 2005 murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri.
Hariri and 21 others died in a massive suicide bomb explosion in Beirut in early 2005 and Ayyash was one of four suspects tried by the Netherlands-based court.
Ayyash’s sentence is currently under appeal, while the three other suspects were acquitted as the court ruled there was not enough evidence against them. The acquittals are also being appealed.
The new trial concerns three attacks against Marwan Hamade, George Hawi and Elias Murr, said the STL, based on the outskirts of The Hague.
Ayyash faced five counts including the “commission of acts of terrorism” and “intentional homicide,” the court said.
The first attack in Beirut in October 2004, wounded Druze MP and ex-minister Hamade, as well as another person, and killed his bodyguard, the tribunal said.
The second attack, also in Beirut, in June 2005, killed Hawi, the former leader of the Lebanese Communist Party, and injured two other people.
The third attack in July of that year killed one person and injured then defense minister Murr and 14 others in Antelias, near the Lebanese capital.
The case was due to open on June 16, but the date was still provisional, the court said.
Ayyash however remains on the run, with Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Shiite Hezbollah movement, refusing to hand him over, alongside three other defendants who were eventually acquitted.
The trial against Ayyash is the first new case taken on by the tribunal since its creation in 2007.
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim former prime minister was allegedly killed because he opposed Syrian control over Lebanon. His death led to the “Cedar Revolution” which forced Damascus to pull out in 2005.