Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority have all separately warned Israel over the past year about growing Turkish activity in East Jerusalem, which they say is part of an attempt by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “claim ownership over the Jerusalem issue.”
Senior officials in Amman and Ramallah told Israel that Turkey was extending its influence in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Israeli defense officials told Haaretz they are aware of the situation and that the issue is now receiving more attention.
Turkey’s attempts to gain influence in East Jerusalem have been monitored by Israel’s security services for more than a year. Israeli sources pointed to a number of ways in which Turkey is increasing its presence in the city.
These include donations to Islamic organizations in Arab neighborhoods; organized tours arranged by Islamist groups in Turkey, some closely affiliated with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which have brought thousands of Turkish citizens to Jerusalem over the past year; and the prominent presence of Turkish activists in demonstrations around the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif).
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Jordanian officials have accused Israel of “sleeping at the wheel” with regard to the phenomenon. They have also claimed Israel was slow to react to Turkey’s growing presence in East Jerusalem because of the reconciliation agreement signed between the two countries in early 2016, which they say Israel didn’t want to endanger by acting more forcefully against Turkish activity in the city.
Israeli defense officials told Haaretz that both Jordan and the PA have expressed concern about the phenomenon. However, the same defense officials rejected the idea that Israel hadn’t taken swift action.
According to these officials, the phenomenon reached its peak last year when hundreds of Turkish citizens became a regular presence in and around the Old City, becoming involved in clashes with police officers during Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The defense officials said the Israeli authorities handled the problem with a combination of arrests and deportations of some of the Turkish activists – barring some of them from reentering Israel.
The officials admitted, however, that even though the Turkish activity has quietened in recent months, it is still an ongoing concern. They said Turkey is still striving for influence by investing in organizations and institutions in East Jerusalem, including through Islamist groups related to the AKP.
“They’re trying to buy real estate and strengthen their political standing,” said a source in the Israel Police. “It’s also a source of concern for the PA, which doesn’t want to have another country claiming responsibility for East Jerusalem.”
Last month, shortly after Turkey ordered the Israeli ambassador to leave Ankara following the death of some 60 Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border on May 14, Israel retaliated by instructing the Turkish consul general in Jerusalem to leave the country. Israeli sources claimed that the consul – a longtime member of AKP – was involved in Turkish efforts to increase the country’s standing in East Jerusalem, including by assisting Islamist groups that have ties to IHH, the organization behind the 2010 Turkish flotilla to Gaza. That attempt to break a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists after Israeli forces raided the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara.
Jordan’s concerns about Turkey’s activities are mostly because of its own standing as the custodian of Islam’s holy sites in Jerusalem. Jordanian officials told their Israeli counterparts that they suspect Erdogan is trying to undercut that position.
For the PA, the main source of concern is that Turkey’s support will boost Islamist groups that oppose the PA, and are closer ideologically and politically to its rival in Gaza, Hamas.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has expressed concern over Erdogan trying to mobilize the Jerusalem issue in order to boost his image across the Arab and Islamic world, and present himself as the only leader truly standing up to Israel and the Trump administration.