The reestablishing of Israeli-Turkish ties has led to renewed efforts by an Islamist Turkish aid agency to undermine Israeli sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem and boost Turkish influence in the city.
The Israel-Turkey diplomatic thaw is paving the way for the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) to resume its activities to undermine Israeli sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem and boost Turkish influence in the city. TIKA, is a Turkish government agency that provides developmental aid in some 150 countries, particularly in Central Asia, Africa, and the Mideast. It works in coordination with Turkey’s Foreign Ministry.
Because of diplomatic sensitivities with both Israel and Jordan, Turkey works to win the hearts and minds of Arabs in eastern Jerusalem by providing assistance in housing, health, education, and assistance to needy families. One of its prominent projects is the “Palestinian Space” project which aims to rehabilitate abandoned villages around Jerusalem.
TIKA says it seeks to “strengthen the Palestinian steadfastness in Jerusalem.”
The agency stopped its activities in the city in 2019 when Israeli officials threatened to revoke the diplomatic status of the heads of the TIKA’s Jerusalem office. Then-Foreign Minister Israel Katz accused TIKA of supporting the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and of trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount.
But as Israel and Ankara restore ties, TIKA is now returning to Jerusalem.
‘A Turkish Statement of Intent’
In April, a delegation of senior TIKA officials led by CEO Serkan Kayalar visited eastern Jerusalem, Ramallah and Hebron, meeting with Palestinian Authority officials and local leaders. They also met with Jordanian officials at the Israeli-Jordanian border.
But the key event of the four-day visit was an iftar meal — a traditional dinner held by Muslims each night during the month of Ramadan — at eastern Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel which was attended by dozens of local religious leaders, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish officials. Several guests told the Tazpit Press Service that the event was regarded as a clear statement of TIKA’s return to eastern Jerusalem with semi-official blessings of the Turkish government.
“It is true that this is a Turkish statement of intent,” one Arab official who met with TIKA told TPS.
One Arab official from eastern Jerusalem who attended the meal told TPS that TIKA and the Turkish consulate funded it. Kayalar pledged on behalf of TIKA to “continue to operate both in east Jerusalem and in the territories of the Palestinian Authority.”
Asked about TIKA’s plans in eastern Jerusalem, Kayalar told TPS, “Such a program is expected to be limited in order not to provoke opposition in Israel.”
Turkish notables joining the TIKA’s meal were the deputy consul of Turkey in Jerusalem, Samara Demiral, and the director of the Cultural Center of Turkey, Cengiz Eroglu.
‘The Real Turkish Ambassador’
But the iftar meal’s main guest of honor was Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, head of the Supreme Muslim Council and former PA-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem who is known in eastern Jerusalem as “the real Turkish ambassador in the city.”
Sabri is currently being investigated by Israeli Police for inciting terror. In October, while visiting the family of Palestinian terrorist Udai Tamimi, who was killed in a shootout in October, Sabri called on Palestinian youth to join the “family of martyrs,” which he described as “sublime and divine, and to be aspired to.”
Tamimi shot and killed Sgt. Noa Lazar and was later killed when he opened fire on security guards in Maale Adumim.
Although the iftar meal was funded by the TIKA and the consulate, it was spearheaded by Sabri, Arab sources told TPS.
Out of sensitivity to Jordan, the Turkish delegation also met with the director of the Waqf at Al Aqsa Mosque, Azzam Al Khatib. The Islamic Waqf, which administers the daily affairs of the Temple Mount, is overseen by Jordan.
The Arab source, who participated in that meeting, told TPS, “This step is intended to calm Jordan, which has been very disturbed for years by the Turkish activities in east Jerusalem and by the significant support that Turkey gives to the clerics and elements of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The source added, “There is no doubt that the Islamic game of the Muslim Brotherhood in east Jerusalem is a dirty game, therefore the Turks will now try to balance the activity.”
However, “the suspicion has not gone away,” and the Jordanian government recently demanded the Turks hand over the funds intended for the various projects in eastern Jerusalem, such as the project to establish dormitories for female students at Al-Quds University. The Turks refused, delaying the dormitory project for more than three years.
According to this source, “Turkey will operate in Jerusalem to the minimum necessary and will transfer its center of gravity to the territories of the Palestinian Authority.” TIKA’s leadership, he said, “Understand that they must not stick a finger in Israel’s eye and their activity in east Jerusalem will be limited and in a way that will not arouse opposition as before.”
Samer Singilawi, a Fatah activist in eastern Jerusalem told TPS that TIKA’s investment in eastern Jerusalem isn’t as significant as critics claim, saying “Turkey is doing a limited budget but a lot of show.”
He said TIKA is “limited now to cultural activities, mainly financing teaching Turkish language to some of the schools in east Jerusalem. But we didn’t see major money coming from Turkey to east Jerusalem.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry told TPS, “We do not know the details in the article and they have been brought to the attention of the political department. But in any case we will not allow any of the parties in Turkey in general, to interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not set foot in east Jerusalem.”
The ministry added that “the policy of the former [foreign] minister, Israel Katz, regarding Turkey’s involvement will not change.”
TIKA’s offices in Ramallah did responded to requests for further comment.