(CNSNews.com) – A visit to Turkey by Hamas’ top leader and his participation in a convention of the ruling Islamist party is the latest sign that Turkey, a member of NATO, is becoming the key sponsor and ally of a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.
Khaled Meshaal met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, before making a guest appearance at a weekend regional congress of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Welcomed onto the platform by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Meshaal received an enthusiastic reception. He endorsed Erdogan and Davutoglu by name, and expressed the hope that together Hamas and Turkey would “liberate Palestine and Jerusalem.”
Turkey’s Hurriyet daily reported that party supporters waving Turkish and Palestinian flags responded to Meshaal’s speech with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and “Down with Israel.”
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Monday he did not have “any comment to offer” about the high-level Turkey-Hamas contacts.
The Turkish boost for Hamas may be linked to broader political shifts in the region.
Although Turkey under the AKP has been a longstanding supporter of Hamas, it has generally been seen as a step behind Qatar, which has poured millions of dollars into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and has provided a base for Meshaal and Hamas’ “political bureau” since early 2012.
Qatar’s strong backing for Hamas – and for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) of which Hamas is an affiliate – caused a serious rift between the small Gulf state and Arab nations opposed to the Brotherhood, primarily Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Since last fall, however, Qatar has been trying to mend those ties.
It expelled MB figures, and then this month suspended operations in Egypt of a pro-Brotherhood television channel, an Al-Jazeera affiliate. (Supporters of three Al-Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt a year ago after being convicted of aiding the MB hope they may soon be freed as part of the rapprochement between Doha and Cairo.)
Last week, a day after a Qatari envoy met with Sisi in Cairo, Gulf media reported that Qatar may temporarily suspend funding of Hamas. Analysts wonder whether a Meshaal move to Turkey could be on the cards.
“In the wake of the recent reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar, rumors have spread in Gaza that Qatar may ask Meshaal, who lives in Doha, Qatar, to leave Qatar to placate Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,” Yoni Ben Menachem, a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote on Monday.
“The Egyptian leader regards Hamas as an enemy and as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist movement in Egypt. Among the possible sites mentioned for Meshaal’s new headquarters was Turkey.”
Late last month Israel lodged a complaint with NATO over Turkey’s willingness to allow senior Hamas terrorists to live and operate freely there. It urged the transatlantic alliance to take steps against its member for allegedly facilitating terror attacks in the Palestinian Authority-administered territories.
“It’s illogical for a NATO member to host a terrorist organization that trains and plans terror attacks on its soil,” read the statement. Turkish officials denied the claims.
Israel’s complaint specifically cited the presence in Istanbul of Saleh al-Arouri, head of Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank, who has lived in Turkey for several years and claimed responsibility on Hamas’ behalf last summer for the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers.
According to the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Turkey is also now sheltering an arguably even more dangerous Hamas terrorist, Amad al-Alami, a key link between the group and Iran. Along with Meshaal and four other senior Hamas leaders, al-Alami has been listed as a specially-designated global terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department for more than a decade.
‘Use every tool available’
The Obama administration has warm relations with both Turkey and Qatar, sought their help in securing a ceasefire during the Israel-Hamas conflict last summer, and in recent months has characterized them as important partners in the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Since the Gaza war last summer, some U.S. lawmakers have been stepping up criticism of both countries over their links with Hamas.
In a bipartisan letter this month, 24 members of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittees dealing with the Middle East and terrorism urged the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, to “use every tool available to designate all individuals, institutions, entities, charities, front companies, banks, and government officials who clearly violate U.S. laws by assisting Hamas and its proxies.”
The signatories noted that Iran has traditionally been Hamas’ chief sponsor, but that “others in the region have stepped up to provide support,” citing Qatar and Turkey specifically.
“Any entity or nation that continues to back this U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization and provide it material and financial support should be sanctioned,” they wrote.
In a speech last March, Cohen said that Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability.”
He also said fundraisers in Qatar were collecting donations for extremists in Syria, including ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra.