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Israelis warned to leave Turkey over Iran threat

Following the killing of Sayad Kohdai last week, Iran has warned it will avenge his death by targeting Israeli businesspeople in Turkey.
BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued an unusually explicit warning on May 30 against non-essential travel to Turkey, citing Iranian plans to attack Israelis there. The warning came amid diplomatic efforts to restore Israel-Turkey relations that peaked with last week’s visit to Israel by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the first such visit in 15 years.

In a highly unusual move, Israeli security officials contacted some 100 Israelis currently in Turkey and advised them to return home as quickly as possible.

Even as hundreds of thousands of Israelis looked forward to vacations at southern Turkish resorts, Israel’s National Security Council announced that specific Iranian threats had been identified against Israelis visiting and working in Turkey to avenge a series of operations attributed to Israel, including last week’s assassination of senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer Sayad Khodai in Tehran. Khodai had been believed to be planning terror attacks against Israeli, Jewish and Western targets abroad.

“The Iranians are seeking revenge,” a former Israeli senior security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They realize that the rules of the game have changed and they want to level the playing field.”

When Ankara balked at the travel warning, Israel clarified it was not upgrading the threat level but rather emphasizing the current situation.

On May 30, the Iranian Fars news agency published a list of five Israelis it described as assassination targets. The report included their names, photos, details about their families and their home and business addresses. The report claimed the five were involved in sabotage and "living in hiding." 

The five are former military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Malka and Cylus founder and CEO Amir Levental, as well as Gal Ganot, a former officer in the 8200 military intelligence unit and currently head of Cyberpro, and Inbal Arieli, also formerly of the 8200 unit and founder of Synthesis, and tech consultant Amit Meltzer.

An Iranian warning also said that Israeli officials and those Israeli businesspeople mentioned should be worried, even when asleep in their beds.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressed today statements made last week in the World Economic Forum in Davos by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, dismissing a Wall Street report that Iran evaded international nuclear investigations using secret UN documents, saying, “Unfortunately the Zionists are spreading a lot of lies.” Bennett responded, "Spreading lies, really? I hold in my hands proof of your lies."

In the surreal aftermath of the warnings and threats, thousands of Israelis continue to board flights to popular Turkish vacation resorts, while dozens of others are making their way home from Turkey.

Several days after Khodai’s assassination, Iran placed the blame on Israel. Khodai’s boss, IRGC  commander Hossein Salami, said after a condolence visit to Khodai’s family, “We will make the enemy regret this and none of the enemy’s evil actions will go unanswered.” An Iranian communique said that another chapter in the shadow war between Israel and Iran has been revealed.

The clandestine low-intensity war of recent years, including at least six attacks on and assassinations of Iranian scientists and academics since 2010, has taken a turn under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who openly advocates operations against senior Iranians deemed responsible for Iran’s nuclear program and its state-sponsored terrorism.

“The Iranians must understand that Israel will exact a price, in cash. It will no longer focus on thwarting attacks against it but will also target their planners,” a former Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Israel is currently concerned that the escalating struggle with Iran will affect the warming of relations with Turkey. One of the incentives Israel is offering Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for enhanced ties is a return of Israeli tourism to his country. The travel warning could upend such plans.

For now, Israeli vacationers seem unbothered by the warnings. They like the pampering all-inclusive resorts and the welcome they receive. “Since we are talking about a concrete threat,” a former Counter Terrorism Bureau official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “this specific threat may be lifted in the coming days and we can go back to normal.” He described the cooperation with Turkey’s security and intelligence agencies as “excellent,” saying Turkey had received information and “was aware of this concrete, tangible threat. They also assumed responsibility for upgrading security precautions.”

The increasing attention on the Iran-Israel conflict does not serve Iran’s interests. “They still very much want to reach an agreement” on the nuclear program, a former senior intelligence official told Al-Monitor. “They are probably willing to accept that the Revolutionary Guards will remain on the US terrorist list, but it is not over. It has just begun.”