November 14, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1728

Turkey-Hamas Relations From 2004 To Today – $300 Million, A Hamas Center In Istanbul For Cyberattacks And Counterintelligence, And Many Treasury Department-Designated Nationals

November 14, 2023 | By A. Smith*
Palestinians, Turkey | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1728

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's close relations with Hamas, the public record of which goes back nearly 20 years, appear to have been largely unaffected by Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel. While there are rumors that Isma'il Haniyeh, who has since 2017 been chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, was in Istanbul on October 7, and reports that Erdoğan thereafter asked him and the rest of Hamas to leave Turkey, the veracity of these claims remains unclear.

Since calling for "moderation" on the day of the attack, Erdoğan has praised Hamas, calling it "a liberation group and a group of mujahideen," while accusing Israel of war crimes and threatening military action, saying "know that whether we are in Libya or in Nagorno-Karabakh, we are the same in the Middle East, with the same decisiveness."

The Turkish government has never designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, and Erdoğan's support for the group goes back at least as far as his condemnation of the assassination of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin in an Israeli strike in Gaza on March 22, 2004. Since then he has hosted both Khaled Mash'al, who was chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau from 1996 to 2017, and Ismail Haniyeh many times at the most prestigious and historical palaces and pavillions in Istanbul and Ankara.

Haniyeh, Mash'al, and Erdoğan at a meeting in Ankara on June 18, 2013.

There are reports that, among other things, Erdoğan promised Hamas $300 million in aid, that there is a secret Hamas center for cyberattacks and counterintelligence operations in Istanbul, and that Erdoğan has aided Hamas using the Turkish defense contracting firm SADAT, which is close to the government. The U.S Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has designated many Hamas operatives of Turkish origin or living in Turkey as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN).

On October 26, a letter signed by 44 members of Congress was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that read: "We write to strongly urge you to take decisive action to hold the Republic of Turkey accountable for its role in supporting and facilitating the operations of Hamas." It called for the government to "employ the full spectrum of its diplomatic and national security tools to sever any political, logistical, and financial links between Turkey and Hamas that enable Hamas to commit atrocious acts of terrorism against Israel. Accordingly, we urge you to demand that Turkey act against Hamas immediately and without equivocation." It said that "the longstanding political, logistical, and financial support provided by Turkey and President Erdogan to Hamas is well-known and a matter of grave concern."[1] The letter outlined the activities of key Hamas operatives in Turkey, including Salih Al-Aruri, Zaher Jabarin, and Jihad Yaghmour.

Forty-four congressmen signed a letter asking for the government to address the Turkey-Hamas connection.

This report will review Turkey-Hamas relations before and after the October 7 attack.

Turkey-Hamas Relations Since The October 7 Attack

On October 7, after the Hamas attack on Israel the same day, Erdoğan called for "moderation" from both sides.[2] Three days later he called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.[3] It was reported on October 21 that Erdoğan had spoken to Haniyeh on the phone about sending humanitarian aid to Gaza and for having those injured in Gaza receive treatment in Turkey as needed.[4]

There have been rumors since October 7 that Haniyeh and other top Hamas officials were in Istanbul on that day. Whether they were or not, Turkish journalist Fehim Taştekin wrote in a column in Al-Monitor on October 22 that two sources had told him that the Turkish government had "gently" told Haniyeh and Hamas to leave the country.[5] The Counter-Disinformation Center of the Presidential Communication Ministry tweeted on October 23 in Arabic that "the claims that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had given instructions to top-level Hamas officials to leave Turkey immediately are completely groundless."[6] Some have observed that Taştekin's article never suggested that Erdoğan had given instructions to top-level Hamas officials to "leave Turkey immediately" and that on the contrary had instead said that the request was made "gently," suggesting the possibility that the Presidential Communication Ministry had written its tweet carefully so as to be literally true, but that Erdoğan had indeed asked Hamas to leave.[7]

Erdoğan said on October 25 that Hamas are not terrorists, but are "a liberation group and a group of mujahideen"[8] who are "acting on their own soil."[9] At the Great Palestine Rally held at Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul on October 28, Erdoğan said: "Unfortunately, among the politicians of my country, there are those who leave Hamas to [the mercy of] Netanyahu. [They say:] 'Hamas are terrorists as much as Netanyahu is.' Shame on you!... You know how I said that Hamas is not a terrorist organization? Israel is very bothered by this. Anyway, I did not expect anything different. I knew they would say this, and that’s why I expressed it openly and clearly... Israel – how did you come to this area? How did you enter it? You are an occupier. You are an organization. The Turkish nation knows this. The West is in debt to you, but Turkey is not. That is why we speak so freely... I call out to the West: Do you want once again to stir up a Crescent-Crusader fight? If you have such an intention, know that this nation is not dead. This nation is alive and well. Know that whether we are in Libya or in Nagorno-Karabakh, we are the same in the Middle East, with the same decisiveness... Now, Israel, we are going to declare to the world that you are war criminals."[10]

The crowd at the Great Palestine Rally in Istanbul on October 28.

There has also been discussion about an effort by the Turkish government to form a "Kurdish Hamas" using Hüda-Par, a political party that is a descendent of Hizbullah in Turkey.[11] Several facts indicate that Hizbullah in Turkey received funding, logistical support, and training from the Iranian government.[12] Following a Turkish government crackdown Hizbullah in Turkey in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the remnants of the group later formed the Hür Dava Partisi ("Free Cause Party"), better known by its abbreviation as the Hüda-Par ("Hüda" is the Kurdish word for God, taken from Farsi).[13] Today the Hüda-Par is a small party[14] that generally echoes Iranian policy on various issues. Ahead of the May 2023 elections in Turkey, Erdoğan's AKP allied with the Huda-Par, and as a result four of the party's representatives entered parliament for the first time.[15]

Hamas-Turkey Relations Before October 7 – From $300 Million In Support To A Secret Center In Istanbul For Cyberattacks And Counterintelligence Operations

Turkey has never recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization, and its relations with Hamas go back nearly 20 years. When Hamas founder and spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin was killed in an Israeli strike in Gaza on March 22, 2004, then Prime Minister Erdoğan condemned the strike, calling Israel "a terror state" and saying that "a shadow had fallen over peace."[16] On November 12 of that year, it was reported that Erdoğan had attended the funeral of Yasser Arafat, which was also attended by Khaled Mash'al.[17]

In September 2010, Israeli dailies reported that Hamas was receiving training in Turkey,[18] and in September 2011, after Turkey placed a number of diplomatic sanctions on Israel, Hamas held a rally in Gaza to thank Turkey.[19] In December of that year, a Palestinian news outlet cited Turkish sources saying that Erdoğan had "sent a confidential letter" to Haniyeh "inviting him to visit Turkey and informing him that he has decided to grant Haniyya's government $300 Million."[20] Haniyeh visited Turkey a month later in January 2012, and said in an interview with Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, among other things, "we are thankful to Turkey."[21] It was reported on April 2, 2014, that an enormous poster featuring Erdoğan had been displayed on one of the biggest avenues in Gaza. The poster read: "Jerusalem awaits its brave ones." The poster also featured Qatari Emiri Temim bin Hamad Al Thaani and former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Halife Al Thaani. Hamas Social Activities Unit Director Ashraf Abu Zaid said that the poster was to thank those who had supported Gaza.[22]

A large poster on a main avenue Gaza featuring Erdoğan that reads "Jerusalem awaits its brave ones."

In February 2018, the Israeli Shin Bet accused Turkey of aiding Hamas using Turkish defense contracting firm SADAT Inc.[23] Retired Turkish general Adnan Tanrıverdi, who is the founder SADAT and was a chief advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from August 2016 until early 2020, said at a conference on November 29-30, 2019, at the Mariott Hotel in the Şişli district of İstanbul that "The Islamic world should prepare an army for Palestine from outside Palestine. Israel should know that if it bombs [Palestine] a bomb will fall on Tel Aviv as well."[24]

On May 21, 2018, it was reported that Erdoğan had been pressuring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reconcile with Hamas,[25] while five months later on October 7, 2020, it was reported that representatives of Hamas and Fatah had met in Istanbul.[26] It was reported on October 23 of that year that Hamas had established, two years prior, a secret center in Istanbul for cyberattacks and counterintelligence operations.[27]

More recently there had been reports of tension in Hamas's relations with Turkey centered on the latter's developing relations with Israel. On January 26, 2021, it was reported that the Turkish government had begun to restrict Hamas's activities inside Turkey,[28] while on September 22, 2023, it was reported that Palestinian scholars, some of whom were Hamas members, had condemned steps that Erdoğan had taken toward normalization with Israel, including a meeting between Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York.[29] On September 27, Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, said at a meeting in Istanbul that the natural gas over which Erdoğan was haggling with Israel had been stolen from the Palestinians.[30]

Treasury Department Designations Of Dozens Of Hamas Terrorists Who Are Of Turkish Origin Or Are Operating In Turkey

Over the years, the U.S Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has listed a number of Hamas operatives of Turkish origin or living in Turkey as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN). Salih Muhammad Sulayman Al-Aruri, who is among the founders of Hamas military wing Iz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, was made a specially designated global terrorist on September 10, 2015,[31] and was elected deputy leader of the Hamas Political Bureau in October 2017. For information leading to Al-Aruri's capture the State Department Rewards for Justice Program is offering a reward of up to $5 million.[32] He reportedly lived in Turkey for some amount of time during the Syrian Civil War.[33]

Speaking at a conference of the Association of Muslim Scholars in Istanbul on August 20, 2014, Al-Aruri also said that on June 12 of that year, the Al-Qassam Brigades had kidnapped three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank who were later found dead on June 30. Mash'al, in an interview with Yahoo News two days later, did not deny Aruri's statement, but emphasized that the kidnapping had been executed without the knowledge of Hamas's political wing.[34]

Salih Al-Aruri lived in Turkey during the Syrian Civil War

On September 19, 2019, OFAC sanctioned a number of Hamas officials based in Turkey, including: Zaher Jabarin, who is reportedly head of Hamas's Finance Office and "manages Hamas's yearly budget amounting to tens of millions of dollars, is in charge of all Hamas's income from various elements around the world, and seeks to obtain additional sources of funding for Hamas... Jabarin was focused on developing a financial network in Turkey that would allow Hamas to raise, invest, and launder money prior to transferring it to Gaza and the West Bank." It also designated the Turkey-based Redin Exchange, which, as of March 2019, along with Treasury-designated financial facilitator Muhammad Sarur, was involved in a $10-million-dollar transfer to the Izz-Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades.[35]

A lawsuit was opened on September 23, 2019, against the Turkish bank Kuveyt Türk on the grounds that it had provided financial support to Hamas between 2012 and 2015. The lawsuit claimed that Turkish authorities had allowed the Qassam Brigades to open an office in Istanbul, and that the office is managed by Salih Al-Aruri. It further claimed that many operations were planned from the office in Istanbul, as was a 2014 coup attempt against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. [36]

On May 24, 2022, OFAC designated a Hamas finance official, three Hamas financial facilitators, and six companies that have generated revenue for Hamas by managing an international investment portfolio. The Investment Office, whose leadership oversees this network, held assets estimated to be worth more than $500 million, including companies operating in Sudan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hisham Younis Yahia Qafisheh, one of those designated, is described in the announcement as "a Turkey-based Jordanian national who served as Usama Ali's deputy and played an important role in transferring funds on behalf of various companies linked to Hamas's investment portfolio." It further says that "As of 2018, Hamas elements held about 75 percent of the issued capital at Turkey-based company Trend GYO."[37]

Nine people were added to OFAC's SDN list on October 18, 2023, including four figures connected to Hamas related to their activity in Turkey: Aiman Ahmad Al-Duwaik, Amer Kamal Sharif Al-Shawa, Walid Mohammed Mustafa Jadallah, and Ahmed Sadu Jahleb.[38] On October 27, Arwa Saleh Mangoush, Alaeddin Senguler, and Gulsah Yigidoglu were added as well.[39]

Erdoğan's Statements On Hamas And The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Many times over the years Erdoğan has explicitly reiterated the Turkish government position that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, as he did in a May 2011 interview with Charlie Rose.[40] It was reported on January 13, 2015, that Erdoğan had said "protecting Jerusalem is the duty not only of Palestine, but is rather the joint duty of the entire Muslim world."[41] A May 15, 2018 tweet in English from Erdoğan's official Twitter account read: "Reminder to Netanyahu: Hamas is not a terrorist organization and Palestinians are not terrorists. It is a resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power. The world stands in solidarity with the people of Palestine against their oppressors."[42] On June 16 of that year, it was reported that Haniyeh had called Erdoğan on the phone to praise him for his stance on the Palestinian issue.[43]

In his speech at the September 2019 UN General Assembly, Erdoğan said: "Compared to the 1967 plan, Palestine nearly ceased to exist as Israel just cannot get enough of occupation. What is the U.N. good for if its resolutions against one of its member states, Israel, mean nothing?"[44] It was reported that Haniyeh had sent Erdoğan a letter thanking him for the speech soon after.[45]

Erdoğan's Meetings With Khaled Mash'al And With İsmail Haniyeh

Erdoğan has met personally with both Khaled Mash'al and Ismail Haniyeh over the years. On February 15-16, 2006, three weeks after Hamas won elections in the Gaza strip on January 25, then Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mash'al visited Ankara with a committee of four other men. The initial plan was that he would be received by then Prime Minister Erdoğan, but after the delegation arrived they were informed that they would instead meet with then Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül at the AKP headquarters.[46]

Mash'al and Erdoğan.

Erdoğan reportedly met secretly with Mash'al when the latter visited Ankara with four of his commanders on February 19, 2012.[47] Another meeting between the two men, this one at the prime minister's residence, was reported in March of that year,[48] and on July 24 they reportedly had iftar, the evening meal to break the fast during Ramadan, together.[49] On September 30, 2012, it was reported that Mash'al had attended an AKP congress.[50] During an October 8, 2013 meeting in Ankara, Mash'al reportedly asked Erdoğan for help paying the salaries of government employees in Gaza.[51] Erdoğan reportedly met with Mash'al in late August 2014,[52] at the Presidential Palace in Ankara in September 2015,[53] in Istanbul on December 19, 2015, [54] and in late April 2016 in a closed meeting for an hour and 15 minutes.[55]

Meetings between Erdoğan and with Haniyeh, who in January 2010 suggested the formation of a regional alliance that involved Turkey, have been as frequent as those with Mash'al.[56] On November 2, 2015, Haniyeh reportedly called Erdoğan to congratulate him on the AKP's victory in the recent elections, saying "the AKP's success is resounding in Palestine, Jerusalem, and Gaza."[57] Haniyeh reportedly called Erdoğan again on December 4, 2017, to discuss U.S. plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.[58] On December 7, then U.S President Donald Trump announced U.S. plans to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel. On December 14, 2019, which was the 32ndanniversary of the founding of Hamas, Erdoğan hosted Haniyeh in Istanbul at the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and from 1909 to 1922.[59]

Haniyeh and Erdoğan

On February 1, 2020, Erdoğan met with Haniyeh for an hour and 15 minutes behind closed doors at the Vahdettin Pavillion, a reconstruction on the same site of a pavillion that belonged to Mehmed Vahdettin, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire.[60] Responding to reactions to his meeting with Haniyeh, Erdoğan said in the days following: "They talk to the PKK and the YPG, then the gentleman is bothered when we talk to those who are fighting for their own soil."[61] Erdoğan met with Haniyeh again in August 2020.[62] On July 26, 2023, it was reported that Erdoğan had met with Mahmoud Abbas and Isma'il Haniyeh behind closed doors at the Presidential Palace in Turkey.[63] The Turkish press was pleased to report that they had this meeting before Haniyeh and Abbas met in Cario on July 30.[64]

*A. Smith is Director of the MEMRI Turkish Media Studies Project.


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