Turkey has long been a defender of the rights and the cause of the Palestinians. Its support for the Palestinians is not a new phenomenon and is widespread from left-to-right of the political spectrum in Turkey. 

This support has gained more visibility recently during the term of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP). Turkey is providing development assistance of 10-20 million USD, and trade with the Palestinians amounts to 400 million USD. The Turkish government has close ties with both Fatah and Hamas, and Turkey is host to a politically active Palestinian diaspora. 

Historically, Turkey’s political position with regard to the Palestinian question has been determined by three principal factors. These are Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Israeli expansion into Palestinian territories, and the status of Jerusalem. Ankara’s stance on the Palestinian question has also, to a significant degree, shaped its policies toward Israel. 

Israel’s aggression towards the Palestinians and its unilateral action with respect to the status of Jerusalem has increased support for the Palestinians and raised harsh criticism of Israel.

Israel’s aggression towards the Palestinians and its unilateral action with respect to the status of Jerusalem has increased support for the Palestinians and raised harsh criticism of Israel. In contrast, positive developments such as the 1993 Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that created the Palestinian Authority have improved relations between Israel and Turkey.

This cyclical pattern in the relations is marked by an exception in the Mavi Marmara case. In May 2010, Israeli naval forces stormed the Mavi Marmara ship, which was in international waters en route to Gaza and killed ten Turkish citizens. Mavi Marmara, owned and operated by a Turkish NGO, Humanitarian Relief Organization (IHH), was part of a Gaza flotilla, which aimed to break the naval blockade imposed on Gaza. The incident gained significant importance after Turkey’s imposition of conditions on lifting the blockade, an official apology for the death of Turkish citizens, and paying compensation to their families for normalization of relations with Israel.

Ankara withdrew its demand for lifting the blockade after Israel’s apology and agreement to pay compensation in March 2013. Diplomatic relations were restored to the ambassadorial level in December 2016. Despite this reconciliation, IHH took the case to International Criminal Court (ICC), but the case was determined inadmissible before the court in 2014. The ICC ordered the tribunal’s prosecutor to reconsider the case on September 2, 2019. Israel is not a party to the treaty establishing the court, but the ICC can still prosecute Israeli citizens. The reconciliation between Turkey and Israel did not survive long, and Turkey asked the Israeli ambassador to leave the country in May 2018 after Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinians protesting the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem.

Erdogan denounced the U.S. decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem as a huge mistake in May 2018.

Turkey’s position on the future of the Palestinians accords with UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. They call upon Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 war territories. As such, Erdogan denounced the U.S. decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem as a huge mistake in May 2018. He declared his intention to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state. He referred to the UN vote that defied the U.S. plan to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with the support of more than 120 countries for the UN General Assembly Resolution in late 2017. 

What is new in Turkey’s policy towards the Palestinians under Erdogan is the diplomatic ownership of the issue on international platforms, such as the United Nations. Turkey actively lobbied at the UN during the vote to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to non-member observer in the UN in 2012. Erdogan called for Islamic countries and the international community to raise their voices against the U.S. decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem and Israel’s crackdown on the protesters. The Turkish government organized an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit in Istanbul in 2018 to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians. 

Erdogan’s delicate diplomacy to keep good relations with both Fatah and Hammas makes him one of the favorite leaders in the Palestinian streets.

Second, Erdogan succeeded in developing close ties with both the PLO and HAMAS as he wants to keep close and sustainable relations with the Palestinians. Turkey recognizes the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, while keeping the relations with HAMAS close at the same time. Erdogan and senior JDP figures regularly meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and Khalid Meshaal of HAMAS in Turkey. Although it is mainly due to the absence of willing actors to pursue such ties with Palestinian groups in the region, Erdogan’s delicate diplomacy to keep good relations with both factions makes him one of the favorite leaders in the Palestinian streets.

Third, Turkey recently became a favorite destiny to live for both FATAH and HAMAS political figures. Turkey’s hosting of HAMAS members raised eyebrows in Israel and there is continuous blame from the Israeli government’s allegations that Turkey is providing a safe haven to HAMAS members. The Palestinian diaspora in Turkey is politically active with meetings, publications and international outreach. As a significant example, President Abbas organized his faction’s annual conference in Istanbul in 2018 with the participation of the FATAH members living in Istanbul.

For Erdogan, the Palestinian question is a significant issue from domestic, regional, and international angles. Erdogan is mobilizing his support base, and even beyond, when he calls for solidarity with the Palestinians. It cultivates his image of powerful leader and defender of oppressed Muslims in the eyes of his constituents. 

He has seized upon the same issue to reach out to the Arab streets, calling for a leadership role among Islamic countries and elevation of Turkey’s image in regional politics. For him, the Palestinian question occupies a central place in his call for raising consciousness in the international community for a better world order. He substantiates the need for a more inclusive UN system through the problems of the Palestinians. On September 24, he reiterated his criticism of the international community and the UN for their lack of support for the Palestinians in his address to the UN General. 

Both FATAH and HAMAS consider Erdogan’s policy a valuable and constructive engagement in the absence of support from both the traditional and the new power centers of the Arab world.

Even if Turkey’s relations with Israel improve, Erdogan will likely continue to be outspoken in the problems pertaining to the Palestinian question. Both FATAH and HAMAS consider Erdogan’s policy a valuable and constructive engagement in the absence of support from both the traditional and the new power centers of the Arab world and the international community in general. 

Moreover, this state of affairs satisfies the expectations of Turkish policy makers and helps them bring home a success story from regional politics, a commodity that is in short supply in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In light of all of this, Erdogan is likely to preserve this stance through uninterrupted engagement with the issue, close ties with the dominant factions, and leadership within the OIC and on the international stage.