Though Turkey’s close interest in East Jerusalem appears to be bothering some countries in the region, it is far from meeting the expectations of Palestinians and effecting changes on the ground. After Turkey signed an accord with Israel in 2016 to normalize diplomatic relations, it immediately introduced an ambitious and well-publicized drive to boost investments in the West Bank, increase tourism to East Jerusalem and lift the blockade on Gaza. There was a significant increase in visits to Jerusalem, but it was not the remedy Palestinians were seeking, and the real winner in these tours is actually Israel.
Israeli daily Haaretz reported June 1 that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are concerned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim to be the guardian of East Jerusalem and have warned Israel. Turks are reportedly trying to buy real estate in East Jerusalem, Turkish civil society has stepped up its assistance and Turks have been seen participating in protests after Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
A Palestinian political source who asked not to be identified has been following the process closely. He made this assessment for Al-Monitor: “Saudi Arabia together with the US is developing a new approach to the Palestine issue. It is normal for the Saudis to feel threatened by the increasing influence of Turkey. Of course Jordan, as the traditional guardian of Al-Aqsa, feels uncomfortable with Turkey’s interest in East Jerusalem. Don’t forget Jordan is also under Saudi pressure. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is isolated. He only has good relations with Turkey. It was the other way around when Turkey had been alongside Hamas. But conditions have changed. Now Abbas is not in a position to complain about Turkey. But other figures in the Palestinian Authority could have voiced their uneasiness.”
From a Palestinian perspective, Turkey’s interest is far from satisfying Palestinian expectations. No matter the loud and lofty promises frequently made by Turkish officials and the country's pro-government media, major steps that would seriously contribute to the Palestine economy hinge on Turkey’s attention to sensitive points in its relations with Israel.
The source added, “What Turkey is doing for Palestine is not at levels that would worry Israel, which is not tolerating anything anyway and monitoring Turkish visits carefully. It still detains some Turks and deports them. We don’t have any information on Turks buying real estate. This is legally possible, but to date we haven’t heard of anyone selling property to Turks.”
The Palestinian Turkish Businessmen Union, which Turkey recognizes as an official interlocutor since a 2014 conference it organized, has been monitoring progress on Ankara's promises.
A 2015 cooperation agreement between the Union of Travel Agencies of Turkey, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, the Palestinian Turkish Businessmen Union and the Travel Agencies Union of Jordan set a target of 100,000 tourist visits a year. Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs reminded the Turks that Jerusalem was the first Muslim holy site, and five companies began arranging tours to the city. One of them, Sarktur, told Al-Monitor the company organizes two tours a month to Jerusalem with 25-45 people in each. A Sarktur representative said, “There is heavy demand, but we can’t accept too many reservations because of Israel's conditions. For example, we don’t allow single males traveling alone. We also eliminate those who don’t look right. It is not enough to get a visa. Even if Israel issues a visa, the police may reject them if they don’t like how applicants talk and act. There have been some tourists detained, not in our groups but of other partner agencies.”
Ziyad Dahliz, a member of the Palestinian Turkish Businessmen Union, said that even if the 100,000 target is not reached, tens of thousands of people have come to Jerusalem over the past two years.
It is true that visits are growing, but these tours enrich Israel more than Palestine. The customers are put up in hotels in West Jerusalem under Israeli control. The association tried to use East Jerusalem hotels, but its efforts failed. Dahliz explained:
“There are features lacking in accommodations on the Palestine side. People want to stay in four, five-star hotels. Our hotels are old and not preferred. We have to build new hotels, but Israel is making it difficult. You have to wait at least two years for a building permit. As Palestinian businessmen, we held a meeting in Amman and registered a company. … Our priority goal is to build a good hotel. Turkey is interested in such a venture but no concrete steps have been taken. Yet we want to do it as Palestinians.”
The ambitious, much touted Jenin Organized Industrial Zone spearheaded by the Union of Chambers and Bourse of Turkey was initiated in 2015. Its goal was to provide employment for 5,000-10,000 Palestinians. Turkish businesses were enticed by the prospect of favorable markets for their products because of free-trade agreements between the Palestinians and the United States, Canada and the European Union. It also enjoyed considerable transportation advantages. Jenin is three hours to Ashdod port, one hour to Haifa and two or three hours to the King Hussein Bridge to Jordan. But the realization of the project needed Israel’s blessing and cooperation. Dahliz said, “Basic construction has been completed at Jenin, but we have not reached the investment phase. Legal formalities were demanded as prerequisite assurances to be given to investors. These have not been achieved. Lack of assurances in security and transportation are discouraging investors.”
The party responsible for security and transportation assistance is Israel, whose attitude guides the attitude of investors. In addition to bottlenecks that slowed down the Jenin project, Palestinians also complain of custom duties Turkey imposes on Palestinian-origin products. Dahliz said Turkey has abolished the taxes on dates imported from Palestine, but no other products. This issue was raised at an April conference organized by Palestinians in Istanbul, and Turkish officials repeated their promises. Nevertheless, if the Jenin zone ever comes to life, it is still not known whether its products will be allowed into Turkey duty-free.