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Turkey and Palestine maintain strong ties despite US pressures

Turkey is proving to be a strong ally to Palestine despite being a member of NATO and having a long-standing military relationship with Israel, and Palestinian officials are trying to use this relationship to counterpressure the Trump administration and Israel.

When the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly upgraded Palestine to a nonmember observer state in December 2012, the foreign minister of Turkey did something unusual. Ahmet Davutoglu, who was moved to tears during a visit to the Gaza Strip in 2012, got up and approached Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and embraced him to the thunderous clapping of the UN delegates.

Turkey, the only majority Muslim country that is part of the US-led NATO alliance, has been a staunch supporter of Palestine and the Palestinians. It has supported both Hamas and the PLO and has not wavered in providing support, especially to Jerusalem. Turkish tourists are among the biggest single group of visitors that bring in revenue for Palestinian-run hotels and restaurants in Jerusalem.

On May 3, newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and delivered a letter from Abbas. Sources in the Ramallah office of the prime minister told Al-Monitor that the two issues mentioned in the letter and discussed during the meeting were the US peace plan and the economic situation in the Palestinian territories.

“I met with President Erdogan and our positions are totally in sync regarding the challenges facing the Palestinian cause,” Shtayyeh reflected in a Facebook message May 8. He continued, “Any initiative that doesn’t meet the minimum rights of our people will fail. I also explained to him [Erdogan] the difficult economic position we are facing as a result of the Israeli theft of our money.”

Shtayyeh was referring to the unilateral Israeli decision to deduct from the money collected on behalf of the Palestinian government an amount equal to the support given to Palestinian families of prisoners and martyrs.

Oraib al-Rantawi, a Jordanian-Palestinian analyst and director of the Amman-based Quds Center for Political Studies, told Al-Monitor that despite its difficult economic statues and its uneasy relationship with the Donald Trump administration, Turkey has been a staunch supporter of Palestine. “Turkey is one of the strongest supporters of Palestine. They coordinate at the highest level with both the PLO and Hamas,” he said.

Rantawi is not sure that Turkey can do much to help Palestine out of its economic problems due to US and Israeli pressures on Palestinians. “I know that what Palestine needs now more than anything is financial support. It will be hard for Turkey to give much money, but they might be able to give loan guarantees and for sure provide political support, especially in terms of helping Palestinians stand up to the upcoming US plan,” he added.

Khaleel Assali, a member of the newly appointed Jordanian Islamic Waqf Council in Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that Turkey’s position on Jerusalem has not wavered. He noted, “They have been a staunch supporter of the Palestinians and of the Hashemite custodianship of holy places in Jerusalem.”

Assali, who travels regularly to Turkey, said that the support is overwhelming on all levels and not limited to politicians. “You feel that the support for Palestine is genuine and real. Unlike some Arab leaders, the Turkish people and leaders express sincere support for Palestine.”

Assali, who is writing a book about Turkish-Arab relations, quotes Arshad Hormozlo, senior adviser to President Abdullah Gul (2007-2014), saying, “Turks might differ on many things, they might differ on economics, on politics and on their favorite football team. But no matter which party they are, they will all unite in support of the Palestinian cause. Jerusalem is part of Turkish heritage and doctrine.”

According to a 2018 study by the RAND Corporation, an American think tank, Turkish-Israeli relations have fluctuated in recent years: “Since their inception, Israel-Turkey relations have been characterized by ups and downs; they have been particularly sensitive to developments related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Throughout the countries’ seven-decade history of bilateral ties, Turkey has downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel three times, most recently in 2011.”

It continued, “In May 2018, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Israel Defense Forces killed dozens of Palestinians during violent clashes in the Gaza Strip; Israel followed suit and expelled the Turkish consul in Jerusalem. While Turkey and Israel normalized relations in 2016, and, in principle, they share important economic and geostrategic interests, developments since then indicate that the two countries remain deeply divided on central issues, most notably the status of Palestine and its people.”

According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s website, “Commercial and economic relations between Turkey and the State of Palestine have steadily gained ground since the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004.”

It adds, “Turkey established official relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1975 and was one of the first countries that recognized the Palestinian State established in exile on 15 November 1988.”

The site further notes, “The total amount of assistance provided to Palestine directly from government to government or indirectly through international organizations like the UNRWA and the WFP since 1995 is well over US$ 300 million. This figure includes Turkey’s assistance in goods or in cash to Palestine in a wide spectrum of fields including, but not limited to development, health, education, public finance, institution building, security, tourism as well as agriculture.”

It is not clear if Turkey can help save the Palestinian government from its current economic problems — except maybe through some kind of loan guarantees. It is also difficult to imagine that Turkey can apply enough pressure on Washington to derail the US planned deal for the region. But for the beleaguered Palestinians, every kind of support is badly needed in the current struggle in which the United States is pressing all its allies, including Arab allies, to take a stand against the Palestinian leadership.

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