Turkish aid in Jerusalem spurs Israeli suspicions

Turkey has been investing heavily in the Palestinian Authority, a trend that is expected to continue this year, according to a recent press release from the Turkish aid agency (TIKA).

Last month, TIKA Palestine Coordinator Bülent Korkmaz said the agency had completed more than 600 projects in Palestine since 2005 and that in terms of aid the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem were viewed as a single entity.

As of July 2018, TIKA had built six schools in Palestine, restored nine and provided equipment to another 20. “TIKA supports non-profit schools in which most of the students are poor and orphans,” Korkmaz said.  

Thousands of Palestinian students study at these schools. John Elias Dabas, a Palestinian peace activist, said the Turkish schools are administered by the PA and that all schools are subject to the same final examinations.  

But a Palestinian who attended the Turkish school in Jenin believed the Turkish schools were better than the PA schools.

“The main difference between the PA schools and the Turkish schools is that the Turkish schools teach us the basics of the Turkish language and culture,” the former student said.  “They had a Turkish day for the school. There was a Turkish teacher who came and stayed with us in Jenin. Furthermore, the education is more modern and the teachers are more up-to-date because it is funded by the Turkish government. Turkish officials visited the school from time to time.”

A Palestinian analyst based in East Jerusalem, who is affiliated with Israeli intelligence, said TIKA was gaining an increased foothold in East Jerusalem with the establishment of schools and the funding of educational institutions.

“They are creating an independent curriculum, which is not related to the PA or Israel,” the analyst said.   

For many East Jerusalem residents, the Turkish schools are increasingly seen as an alternative to the Israeli-oriented schools, which Palestinians want to avoid, the analyst said, while the PA schools offered poor quality education.

“The Turkish schools are wanted more than the PA schools. What they have to offer is more than what the PA has to offer,” he said.

While TIKA is making inroads in the Palestinian educational system, the Palestinian analyst said a number of Palestinian schools had also opened up in Turkey. TIKA, meanwhile, has renovated the dorms at Al Quds University and offers Turkish language instruction to Palestinian students, in universities and at the Turkish Cultural Centre in Jerusalem. Last fall, TIKA distributed more than 300 tablets to students and teachers at schools in East Jerusalem.

TIKA’s activities are not limited to education. In 2017, the agency restored the iconic crescent atop the gold dome of the Dome of the Rock. In addition, TIKA renovated local homes and shops in East Jerusalem, supported a sports facility and a children’s shelter, renovated a Muslim cemetery and distributed food to hundreds of poor families. TIKA also said it was working to restore Muslim artefacts and to preserve other areas of Turkish or Turkic significance in the Holy Land.  

As a result of these projects, many Palestinians have a positive perception of Turkey.

“There are many Turkish bathhouses in the West Bank,” said Dabas. “They also restored the Old Ottoman Court. It is one of the most popular travel destinations for Palestinians. Most Palestinians think highly of Turkey.”  

The Palestinian student who studied at the Turkish school in Jenin agreed.

“Turkey influences not just the schools, it is one of our favourite tourist destinations,” he said. “Most of the clothes and food products here are Turkish-made. Most Palestinians view the assistance in a positive manner.”

While some argue that TIKA’s activities in East Jerusalem are mainly humanitarian and thus benign, not everyone views increased Turkish influence in East Jerusalem positively.

“Look, we are acquainted with TIKA for many years,” said an Israeli official who chose to remain anonymous. “In the past, when relations were better, we had some common activities with them in Turkey and elsewhere. It is an agency that has positive purposes.

“But in the context of East Jerusalem, TIKA is being used as an instrument in order to promote the Turkish political perspective and ideology, which is not necessarily favourable for Israel. They work with the Arab population in East Jerusalem and we know that this is not in harmony with the interests of the state of Israel. At the end of the day, the Turkish government represents an Islamic perspective and obviously this is what they teach,” the official said.

Israel-based journalist and author Nadav Shragai, who formerly served as a correspondent for Haaretz, said: “TIKA is a government organisation, which operates out of Turkey. It is not a positive development that they are increasing their presence here. They are trying to make the area more Muslim and less Jewish. They want the Muslims to control Jerusalem. While TIKA also does some good things, like giving money for healthcare and social needs, they also finance anti-Israel organisations and causes.”

For example, according to a report by the Israel Defense Forces, TIKA donated $13 million to construct 20 new apartment buildings, but all of the new homes were given to Hamas operatives, not ordinary Palestinians. In another instance cited by the IDF, TIKA donated $3 million to underprivileged Palestinian students, but the only ones who saw the money were Hamas members.

Israeli authorities believe Muhammed Murtaja, former TIKA head of Gaza who was arrested by Israel in February 2017, managed to divert $23 million from TIKA and transfer it exclusively to Hamas members and their families. Last July, Israel’s national security council announced plans to curb TIKA activities in Palestinian areas, due to links to radical groups.  

TIKA also searched the Ottoman state archives and delivered to PA officials land documents showing that huge swathes of land in Jerusalem and Bethlehem are Islamic Waqf property, according to a report from the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Centre. TIKA transferred the Ottoman documents to them in order to block land claims by the state of Israel. And according to the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank, TIKA has purchased a lot of former Ottoman properties in Jerusalem, infiltrated the Supreme Muslim Council and attempted to build an alliance with the Islamic Movement, which is not known to be pro-Israel.

“Turkey is trying to replace the status of Israel, Jordan and the PA in Jerusalem and become the protector of the holy sites in Jerusalem,” said Mordechai Kedar, a scholar of Arabic culture and lecturer at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. “This is part of their narrow Ottoman-style thinking, which (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan is leading. He views himself as a sultan. Since he cannot go to Mecca and Medina, he goes to Jerusalem instead.

“Historically, Jerusalem was always the challenge to the centrality of Mecca and Medina -- today, like it was in the past. Everything that Turkey is doing in Jerusalem revolves around this point of posing Turkey as custodian of the holy places in Jerusalem as a counterweight to the king of Saudi Arabia, who is custodian of the holy places in Mecca and Medina. Definitely, Turkey challenges the centrality of Saudi Arabia in the whole Islamic world. Their activity in Jerusalem is meant to show everyone that Turkey has a holy place as well,” Kedar explained.

In a 2017 interview, TIKA President Serdar Cam denied that the agency had a secret agenda in East Jerusalem and refuted reports it was trying to make the area more Islamic. Cam said TIKA also funded the restoration of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and that the agency did not favour one religion over another.

“TIKA cooperates closely with both Palestinian and Israeli officials and we have been continuing our mission in Israel in accordance with diplomatic rules,” he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.