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Erdogan rebukes Greek PM for calling Hamas ‘terrorists,’ says 1,000+ members being treated in Turkey

Erdogan’s comments came after the Greek prime minister told the news conference that “particularly in the Middle East there are differences with Turkey.”
This handout photograph taken and released by the Turkish Presidency Press Service on May 13, 2024 shows Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan posing before a meeting in Ankara.

Monday’s summit between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, heralded as a milestone in improving ties between the historically hostile nations, was marked instead by Erdogan’s spirited defense of Hamas during a live press conference that followed their meeting in Ankara and his disclosure that over 1,000 Hamas members were being treated in Turkey.

“There is a very important issue on which we disagree,” Erdogan told the audience. “I do not see Hamas as a terror organization."

Noting that Palestinian lands have been occupied since 1947, Erdogan said that “Hamas is a resistance group” that was “waging a struggle to protect” Palestinian lands. “If one calls Hamas that has lost 40,000 of its people a terrorist organization, this would be a heartless approach,” Erdogan added. He then dropped the bombshell: “As of this moment, I am following Hamas step by step, and there are more than 1,000 Hamas members who are all being treated in our hospitals. This is how we are doing things. … I cannot agree with your approach. This would be unfair,” Erdogan concluded. He did not explain how the Hamas militants had made their way to Turkey.

Media reports later cited Turkish officials claiming Erdogan misspoke regarding militants being treated in the country, but Ankara has yet to issue any official clarification. 

Erdogan has sharply increased his verbal salvos against Israel since the March 31 local elections in which his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered heavy losses in part over what his pious base saw as the government’s wimpish stand on Gaza. Turkey has since formally scotched all trade with Israel, and on Sunday, Erdogan said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “reached a stage in genocide methods that even Hitler would envy.”

Erdogan’s latest comments came after Mitsotakis told the news conference that “particularly in the Middle East there are differences with Turkey.” Noting that Israel had entered Gaza after losing its citizens in a “terror” incident, and that Greece considered Hamas a “terrorist organization,” Mitsotakis said, “We know that Turkey sees things differently and has a different definition [of Hamas].” Mitsotakis continued, “nonetheless we agree on the need for the bloodshed to cease and for civilians in Gaza to be protected and that a land invasion of Rafah would be unacceptable.”

Mitsotakis handled Erdogan’s outburst skillfully, saying “let us agree to disagree.” But the exchange will have put something of a damper ahead of a state dinner that Erdogan is hosting in his Greek guest’s honor. It will not have helped that Mitsotakis rebuked Erdogan in his remarks for last week’s formal conversion of the Chora, an iconic Greek Orthodox Church, into a full-service mosque, calling it “unfortunate.” Erdogan retorted that “Turkey has set an example for all as a country that preserves its cultural heritage … the Chora Mosque is open to everybody with its new identity.”

A spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Erdogan’s revelations about the Hamas members being treated in Turkey. Hay Eytan Yanarocak, a Turkey expert at Tel Aviv University, said, “There’s a big difference between treating wounded civilians and treating Hamas militants.”  

“This is a new low,” Yanarocak said, and canceled out the “positive news” that junior Israeli diplomats were returning to Ankara following months after being withdrawn in October amid security concerns.

A State Department spokesperson, speaking on background, said, "We have been clear about our position on Hamas. With regard to Hamas, the United States designated Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997." 

"As for President Erdogan's comments, we would refer you to his office," the spokesperson added.

No irreconcilable differences

Before the barbs began flying, the two leaders spoke warmly of their meeting — the second in five months — which is in line with the new “positive agenda” established by the sides and aimed at de-escalating tensions that have at times brought the traditional foes and NATO allies to the brink of conflict. “We had an immensely productive, sincere and constructive meeting,” Erdogan said, noting that the sides aimed to increase annual bilateral trade to $10 billion from the $6 billion recorded last year and confirmed the establishment of a Greek-Turkish business council. “I shared my belief that there are no problems between us and Greece that are insurmountable. This is a process. In order for it to yield further results, we must move forward with the utmost care,” Erdogan said. He also praised Greece for backing Palestine in last week’s UN general assembly vote on its bid to become a full member of the international body.

The Turkish leader sported a blue tie and suit and a white shirt, the national colors of Greece. Mitsotakis, who dressed almost identically, was equally effusive, saying relations between the two countries were proceeding on a “win-win basis.” For example, Turkish tourists are now allowed visa-free travel to 10 Greek islands even though Greece is a member of the European Union, which has strict restrictions on entering its borders. Mitsotakis praised Turkey’s efforts to curb illegal immigration to Europe via Greece. “Turkey is very determined on this count. It made a very positive contribution,” he said.

Both leaders made only passing allusions to the chronic problems bedeviling ties. Topping the list are differences over territory and air space in and over the Aegean Sea. More recently, tensions flared over drilling and production rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is home to large gas reserves that are claimed by both sides as well as by Cyprus.

A senior Greek official who briefed Al-Monitor ahead of the visit said the sides were deliberately modest in their expectations. “There won’t be a breakthrough. What is important is to keep the channels of communication open,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, said.

US mediation

The meeting follows a period of detente that kicked off last year when Greece rushed to Turkey’s aid after massive twin earthquakes rocked the country’s southern region killing more than 50,000 people. However, Washington is known to have played a critical role in accelerating the thaw when it signaled that the sale of 40 F-35 fighter jets to Greece might be authorized if pro-Greek congressmen in the United States agreed to withdraw their objections to the sale of 40 F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. One of the reasons cited by Congress for its continued opposition to the Turkish deal was Ankara’s aggressive and threatening behavior toward Greece. Last year, Erdogan said that Mitsotakis “does not exist for me” after accusing him of lobbying Congress to bar the sale.

Congress began softening after Turkey stopped military flights over Greek islands in the Aegean, marking a significant de-escalation after years of incendiary rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides. Mock dogfights by Greek and Turkish jets and the mutual shadowing of navy frigates eased in tandem, and Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s membership of NATO cemented the deal. “It would have probably been very difficult” for it to go through had Turkey not de-escalated with Greece, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Turkey director for the German Marshall Fund for the United States. More broadly, improving ties with Greece will help Turkey repair its own with the United States and Europe, Unluhisarcikli added, which in turn will help Erdogan turn around his country’s ailing economy.

In December, Erdogan traveled to Athens where he signed a declaration with Mitsotakis on “friendly relations and good neighborliness,” which set a framework within which the two countries hope to build confidence through trade, tourism and cooperation in fields such as combating illegal migration, which is vital for Europe who sees Turkey as a gatekeeper for unwanted refugees.

Further confidence building measures have followed, the Greek official said. There is now a direct hotline between the Greek and Turkish militaries who exchange officers and organize joint sports events. “The aim of these meetings is to sustain the de-escalated status so as to avoid potential, if accidental, war,” Unluhisarcikli said.

Rina Bassist and Elizabeth Hagedorn contributed to this report.