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How could a Turkey-Israel deal play out in Gaza? Open in fullscreen

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

How could a Turkey-Israel deal play out in Gaza?

Palestinians mark the fifth anniversary of the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident [Getty]

Date of publication: 31 May, 2016

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A reconciliation between Turkey and Israel could ease, but likely not end, the Gaza blockade, analysts say.

The headlines are familiar, creating a sense of collective Déjà vu every year: A deal between Turkey and Israel is nearly done, and reconciliation is imminent.

But for Palestinians watching the latest chapter in the saga of Turkey-Israel relations unfold from the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, the feeling is one of cautious optimism that these negotiations may soon lead to an easing of some Israeli restrictions imposed on Gaza.

"I don't think that Israel will accept to end the blockade, but maybe we will see some improvements in the Gaza Strip," said Belal Shobaki, an assistant professor of political science at Hebron University.

Shobaki, a member of the Palestinian policy network al-Shabaka who specialises in political Islam, said Hamas is relying on Turkey due to its isolation in the region.

The Palestinian faction has a bad relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and virtually no relationship with Jordan, "so the best solution is to deal with Turkey to try to end the siege on Gaza", Shobaki said.

Diplomacy strained

Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel hit their lowest point in 2010, after Israeli navy commandos stormed the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid flotilla and killed 10 Turkish citizens on board.

The Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv and the Israeli ambassador in Ankara were pulled, and a very public war of words ensued.

In 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then acting as Turkey's prime minister, accused Israel of carrying out "systematic genocide" against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. A year later, far-right Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman called Erdogan an "anti-Semitic, neighbourhood bully".

Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel hit their lowest point in 2010, after Israeli navy commandos stormed the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid flotilla and killed 10 Turkish citizens on board

Turkey has conditioned a return to normal relations with Israel on receiving an official apology for the Mavi Marmara attack – which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered to Erdogan in a phone conversation in 2013 – securing compensation for the families of the flotilla victims, and lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Israel, meanwhile, has demanded that Turkey end its support for Hamas, the Palestinian political party that controls the Gaza Strip.

Israel has also pushed for Ankara to stop Hamas officials from operating out of Turkey, including Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri, who Israeli politicians have accused of organising attacks on Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

In a sign of warming relations, Israel is expected to open an office at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation office in Brussels.

Turkey, a NATO member, had blocked Israeli attempts in the past to advance its interests with the alliance.

In early May, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would sign a reconciliation deal if Israel agrees to end the electricity and water crises in the Gaza Strip.

Davutoglu told reporters in Doha that the deal was in the final stages, and “with God’s help it will be resolved.” He also reaffirmed that reconciliation with Israel would help Palestinians in Gaza.

The two sides are expected to hold more talks in mid-May, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

In early May, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would sign a reconciliation deal if Israel agrees to end the electricity and water crises in the Gaza Strip

Shobaki said it serves Israel's interests to have Turkey act as a mediator, as Ankara can attempt to control Hamas and guarantee Israeli security vis-a-vis Gaza.

"I think Hamas has no choice but to deal with Turkey," Shobaki said. "They are trying to handle Hamas, they are trying to push Hamas to accept a two-state solution, and I think that Hamas nowadays is closer to the two-state solution than any time before."

Strong economic ties

In mid-April, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said most of the deal had been agreed upon and both sides had "considerable interest" in finalising the terms.

But a spokesperson for Erdogan said Turkey's demand that Israel allow it to send a power generator ship to the Gaza coast to power the territory was still being debated.

"I imagine that Israel would be willing to ease some of the restrictions [on Gaza], but I don't see Israel going and lifting the entire naval blockade. I also don't see Turkey meeting all the demands that Israel has put on it in terms of its relationship with Hamas," said Dan Arbell, a senior fellow in the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"I don't know exactly how they will circle the square there."
Arbell said the situation was extraordinary because economic ties usually mirror a political relationship, but that is far from the case here.

In fact, bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel at the end of 2010 totalled $3.4 billion, up from about $2.6 billion the year before, the Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel at the end of 2010 totalled $3.4 billion, up from about $2.6 billion the year before

Since 2009, Turkey-Israel trade has grown by 19 percent, totalling $5.44 billion in 2014 alone.

"The economies of Turkey and Israel complement each other, and the trade ties are flourishing," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon said last year.

Arbell said the two sides were coming together for a number of reasons, including a shared desire to avoid isolation in the region, similar interests concerning the conflict in Syria, and a potential natural gas deal.

Israel is looking to export gas reserves, and Turkey is looking for new supplies after ties to Russia, previously its main supplier, became strained.

Samir Awad, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said that Turkey and Israel need each other.

"Israel needs to end the siege on Gaza, and now with the whole issue of [refugees] and the European Union, Turkey needs Israel," Awad said.

Israel needs to end the siege on Gaza, and now with the whole issue of [refugees] and the European Union, Turkey needs Israel
- Samir Awad, political science professor at Birzeit University

Hamas-PA power struggle

Wasel Abu Yousef, a Palestine Liberation Organisation official, said that the PLO respects Turkey's independence in setting its own relationship with Israel.

He said the important thing is that Turkey continues to support Palestinians.

"We want the Arab and Islamic countries to keep standing by the Palestinian people. That's what we care about," he said.

Abu Yousef also said countries should deal with the "legitimate" Palestinian leadership, and not "parties and movements," a reference to Hamas. 

The Palestinian Authority (PA), however, fears that a deal between Turkey and Israel will solidify Hamas's authority in Gaza, Awad said, as a full or partial easing of the blockade may give Hamas political capital.

That may also move the Palestinian factions further apart on national reconciliation.

"The Palestinian Authority is not very happy with these talks," Awad said.

A weakened Hamas, however, is also not in a position to impose any demands on Turkey.

"Life in Gaza has become so difficult for Palestinians – and for the Hamas government that has been struggling to survive – that just about any easing of Gaza's closure that Turkey could procure from Israel would be welcomed in Gaza," said Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group who covers Gaza, Israel, Jordan and the occupied West Bank.

Life in Gaza has become so difficult for Palestinians that just about any easing of Gaza's closure that Turkey could procure from Israel would be welcomed in Gaza
- Nathan Thrall, International Crisis Group

Approximately 90,000 Palestinians in Gaza remain displaced after Israel's last war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, the United Nations estimates, while the continued Israeli-Egyptian blockade has impeded reconstruction efforts.

"In the past, when life in Gaza was not quite as precarious as it is today, Hamas might have expressed dissatisfaction with a Turkey-Israel deal that did not fulfil Turkey's pledge to condition reconciliation on a full lifting of the siege on Gaza," Thrall said.

"But that doesn't seem to be the case any longer."

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