June 9, 2016 | The Weekly Standard
Hamas Still Finds Harbor in Turkey
Turkey is one or two meetings away from normalizing ties with Israel, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the media Tuesday. Ties between the two countries have been frosty since 2010, when Ankara sponsored a flotilla to the Gaza Strip, a territory held by the terrorist organization Hamas, in a bid to break the Israeli-led international blockade. Israeli commandos boarded one of the ships, leading to a confrontation that resulted in ten deaths.
To this day Turkey insists that Israel must lift the blockade. The issue is not an easy one to resolve, but just as thorny is the issue of Turkey's continued support for the Palestinian terrorist group. Reports that Turkey provides cash to Hamas have circulated for years. But because this assistance is provided in the form of cash, it's not easy for the Israelis to document. This is why Israel is focused on another demand: dismantling Hamas's Istanbul headquarters.
Hamas's Turkey headquarters was big news in August 2014, when the group's exiled military leader Saleh Arouri announced that his group was behind the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. That operation led to the grueling 51-day war between Israel and Hamas. Arouri made the announcement in Istanbul, in front of a large crowd that included senior Turkish officials.
With increased attention on Arouri, including concern over the fact he was headquartered in the heart of a NATO country, the U.S. Treasury designated Arouri as a terrorist in September 2015. According to media accounts, the Hamas leader was then deported in December 2015, although his departure from Turkey may have occurred much sooner.
While Arouri was the most prominent member of Hamas to find shelter in Istanbul, many other senior Hamas officials remain there. And their ejection from Turkey appears to be at the heart of Israel's demands as rapprochement talks near completion.
One such figure in Bakri Hanifa, who is a major financial operative for Hamas, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Seyassah. The paper in 2014 noted that Hanifa moved “tens of millions of dollars” to Turkey from Qatar before being sent onward to Hamas's political and military wings. Hanifa reportedly ran a money changing business in Syria, where Hamas was headquartered, before the civil war there prompted Hamas to find other bases of operation. Today, he owns at least one company dealing in precious metals, diamonds, and gems in Istanbul.
Another major Hamas figure still located in Istanbul is Maher Ubeid. He has been a member of the Hamas politburo since 2010, reportedly now in charge of handling Hamas's international relations. Reports suggest that he is also a major financial operative for the group. According to the Hamas website, Ubeid was among the 415 Hamas members exiled in 1992. That group went on to form the nucleus of Hamas's leadership upon their return. In recent years, Ubeid has taken part in high-profile Hamas delegations to Iran and Malaysia.
And it's not just Hamas political types and financiers who have made a home in Istanbul. Many there have blood on their hands.
Mahmoud Attoun for example, was found guilty in the Hamas kidnapping and murder of Nissim Toledano, a 29-year-old Israeli. After his arrest, Attoun admitted to his involvement in other terrorist operations. He was released to Turkey as part of a prisoner swap (for captured Israel soldier Gilad Shalit) in 2011. From his perch in Istanbul, Attoun has since become a public figure, giving speeches and making television appearances extolling the virtues of Hamas.
Majed Hassan Ragheb Abu Qteish is another Turkey-based Hamas operative who was involved in the Toledano murder. He was exiled to Turkey in 2011 with the others and has also become a public personality.
Turkey also shelters a founding member of the Qassam brigades, Walid Zakariya Abd al-Hadi Aqel. He was sentence to 21 life sentences in Israel for a wide range of terrorist activity before being exiled to Turkey.
Harun Mansur Ya'aqub Nasser al-Din is another member of the Izzeldine al-Qassam brigades. He openly admits to having killed Israeli soldiers. In an interview after his release, Nasser al-Din boasted that Turkey grants the released prisoners full freedom to come and go as they please.
Finally, there is Ayman Muhammad Abd al-Rahim Abu Khalil, who was sentenced to three life sentences for a variety of terror related activity. Abu Khalil now appears to be a passport-holding naturalized Turkish citizen.
These are just ten Hamas figures currently believed to be in Turkey. There are a handful more that can be easily identified in the Arabic and Turkish press, and nearly all of them maintain profiles on Facebook and Twitter, where they regularly post updates on their lives in Turkey.
Admittedly, Hamas has not been proscribed as a terror group in Turkey. Moreover, many of these figures were sent to Turkey as part of a prisoner swap. But that is no justification for Turkey to look the other way while these people continue to engage in Hamas activities. Indeed, it's not hard to see why the Israel has made their ouster one of its key demands. So long as this cell of Hamas operatives continues to operate there in the light of day, Israel sees Turkey as a state sponsor of terrorism. Western countries that maintain a ban on Hamas see Turkey is this unflattering light, too.
Should the two sides resolve this issue, Ankara has an opportunity to restore its ties with a powerful regional actor. More importantly, Ankara can restore its international image by taking a step that is very much in its own interest.
Jonathan Schanzer is Vice President for Research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.