21.12.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey avoids getting directly involved in Israel’s conflict with Palestine, preferring to operate on the “undercover front”

Turkey in Israel’s conflict with Palestine. “undercover front”

After a week-long humanitarian pause, the military conflict in the Gaza Strip has not only been renewed, but has taken a new form.

As we know, as part of its justification for its actions, Israel initially warned that the Palestinians should leave the northern areas of the Gaza Strip and head south for their own safety. As a result, almost the entire northern part of the Gaza strip was subjected to intense air and ground attacks by the Israeli armed forces, and a large number of residential and administrative buildings were destroyed in order to force civilians into a mass exodus. Attempts to justify such brutality against Gaza by claiming that the aim of the operations is to completely destroy Hamas do not hold water, as only 30 percent of the more than 16,000 Palestinian victims of the ongoing war are Hamas militants. But what now?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Israeli authorities have come up with a sophisticated new plan to squeeze the Hamas militants out of their underground tunnel network and destroy them in the Gaza Strip. In reality, even the Israeli intelligence services (Shin Bet, Mossad and Aman) lack accurate figures on the number of underground shelters in Gaza. Some sources put the figure at 800 tunnels, while others believe there are considerably more. The tunnels have been equipped with electricity and communications infrastructure and it is assumed that they also contain weapons arsenals. The IDF has constructed a system of pumps to pump water from the Mediterranean Sea and flood Hamas’ underground tunnels in Gaza. If implemented, this plan could significantly worsen the humanitarian problem in the Palestinian enclave, where the population already has little access to clean water, as Israel has destroyed many pipelines and water conduits.

In fact, Israel is not the first to attempt to conquer an enemy through siege and attrition, including by denying them access to water). This plan was reportedly drafted by the Israelis in November, and shared with their key ally, the US. The Americans are reluctant to publicly confirm or deny this report. In fact, the Americans are divided into two camps – some support Israel’s plan, others do not.

The next new development in the IDF’s combat operations in the Gaza Strip is a change in the geographical focus of its strikes. Specifically, while previously the main focus of the Israeli armed forces’ strikes was in the northern areas of the Palestinian enclave, they are now conducting ground offensives in all areas of Gaza, including the north, south and east. IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari has said that the Israeli military is expanding its ground offensive to all areas of Gaza. The Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, General Herzi Halevi, has also talked about the fighting in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

Commenting on this situation, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, in an interview with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, has, quite rightly, accused Israel of brutality against Palestinian non-combatants in Gaza, and the West of hypocrisy. Before his visit to Athens, he asked: “Does the directive for people in Gaza to “go south” and the subsequent bombings of those who follow that direction reflect a stance embraced by the West?” The fact is that the West, through its support for Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip, is acting in violation of its own fundamental values, specifically those related to human rights abuses.

The third new development in the conflict between Israel and Hamas is the announcement by Ronen Bara, head of Shin Bet, Israel’s General Security Service, that the Israeli intelligence services are ready to eliminate Hamas leaders and activists around the world, including in Lebanon, Qatar and Turkey. Presumably the Keshet Division, a specialist unit forming part of Mossad, whose operational tasks include infiltrating and monitoring targets (and which, incidentally, was formerly headed by current Israeli intelligence head David Barnea) has already received new data on intelligence objects and their locations.

As Israeli Colonel Avichay Adraee has warned Hamas: “This is a final notice. You are all targets. You have two options: Surrender and lay down your weapons, or face a fate similar to that faced by Wissam Farhat and Younis Mushtaha – two Hamas leaders who were killed in Israeli strikes.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Air Force drones are conducting reconnaissance flights in southern Lebanon and launching targeted strikes on any mobile rocket launchers that are detected. In other words, Israel’s Aman Military Intelligence Directorate remains responsible for suppressing militant activity by the Lebanese Hezbollah by using technical equipment to detect and eliminate threats.

It is an open secret that the intelligence services of conflicting sides continue to engage in undercover military activities during both peacetime and wartime. In war, the intelligence services are given carte blanche to carry out subversive activities, which are not limited only to the collection and extraction of intelligence information and recruitment activities, but also include more active measures, including the sabotage of enemy military facilities and the physical elimination of its military and political leaders. Moreover, such intelligence activities are not limited to the conflict zone or enemy territory, and in fact can be conducted anywhere – for intelligence operatives geography is irrelevant, and the only material concern is the location of their target. This is axiomatic for any war, whether a low-intensity, local, regional or global conflict.

Another aspect of intelligence work is that a third country can become a “field” for intelligence and subversive activity because representatives of one of the conflicting parties is visiting (or resident) in that country – even though the country in question has no wish for an “improvised performance” of this kind. In this regard, Turkey’s concern about the above statement by the head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service is quite understandable. Erdoğan and the Turkish intelligence services are concerned less about Israel’s ability to carry out successful special retaliation operations, than about the possibility of such covert operations being conducted in Turkey.

Turkey’s MIT sees the public threats by Ronen Bara to eliminate Hamas leaders abroad as part of a psychological campaign by the Israeli intelligence services to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the public by demonstrating that they are the most effective and strongest intelligence service. Naturally, however, the heads and operatives of special forces do not generally make public their immediate or long-term plans, nor do they warn their targets about planned subversive operations. However, they do act in accordance with their own principles and decisions. Thus, after Palestinian terrorists attacked and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics in Munich, it did not take long for Israeli special forces to identify and eliminate the terrorists, in what became known as Operation Mitzvah Elogim (“Wrath of God”).

Turkey is, of course, concerned about the possibility of similar operations by Israeli intelligence services on its own territory. During the initial period of the current Palestinian-Israeli war, the media reported that, in accordance with Mossad’s warning about plans to eliminate Hamas leaders currently in Turkey, representatives of the Turkish MIT invited Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders to leave Turkey in order to avoid undesirable consequences. As a result, Ismail Haniyeh and his colleagues moved to Qatar.

What has changed in the short time that has elapsed since then? Why did neither Recep Erdoğan nor any other Turkish politicians and commentators not then warn the Israelis of the serious consequences that would follow any Israeli operations, including retaliation by Turkish intelligence? However, the fact that there have been no public statements does not necessarily mean that the Turkish intelligence service did not send any such warnings to the Israelis through its own channels and its own activities.

The fact is that in the initial period of the military conflict, President Erdoğan expected to play a neutral role, as mediator and peacemaker. However, after 20 days Turkey changed its tack, and began to show support for Hamas, condemning the actions of the IDF and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Gaza Strip, and describing the West an accomplice of Israel. Ankara announced its plan for a final political settlement of the Palestinian issue by recognizing the independence of Palestine with the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital, and granting Turkey an international mandate with the right to guarantee Palestine’s security.

That raises the question of what kind of guarantor of Palestinian security Turkey can be if even on its own territory it cannot ensure the security of visiting Hamas leaders, whose struggle against Israel Ankara considers to be a just war of liberation?

As a NATO member, Turkey is unable to accept Shiite Iran’s offer to join a military coalition of Islamic countries against Israel because the North Atlantic Alliance overwhelmingly supports Tel Aviv. To do that would be to challenge not only Israel, but also the US, the UK and the rest of NATO. Moreover, Turkey is now somewhat vulnerable economically, with just 4% growth this year, and its dependence on imports could put it in a position of long-term dependence on the West.

Even after withdrawing the Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv, President Erdoğan did not sever diplomatic relations with Israel, keeping trade ties at a minimum level (including maintaining the transit supply of gas from Azerbaijan and Iraq) and instructed MIT to continue maintaining contacts with its Israeli counterparts.

According to Turkish sources, MIT has previously identified a network of Mossad agents in Turkey. Naturally, no intelligence or counterintelligence agency, after identifying a foreign intelligence network, is going to rush into publicly exposing it.

Firstly, because complex work of this kind needs to be done in silence.

Secondly, because the counterintelligence service cannot always be sure that it has identified the entire network, and it tries to continue operational development by keeping the situation under operational control.

Thirdly, because intelligence services faced with such a development prefer the option of “operational strategies and machinations”, including recruitment and re-recruitment of agents, which can be an effective way to deal with the situation.

Fourthly, because the official exposure of a foreign intelligence network is more likely to be political decision rather than a professional goal of the counterintelligence service.

But rather than getting caught up in a discussion of intelligence services and their practices, let us return to relations between Turkey and Israel. Naturally, it is now preferable for Turkey to support Hamas covertly, in opposing Israel’s intelligence services. MIT, one of the most successful intelligence services in the Middle East, has the ability to eliminate all of Israeli activities on Turkish soil. According to the Turkish newspaper Habertürk, MIT has warned Israel of serious consequences if Hamas members are attacked in Turkey.

In turn, Ali Yerlikaya, the head of the Turkish Interior Ministry, which oversees the General Directorate of Security (counterintelligence), has announced that attacks by Israeli intelligence against Hamas leaders on Turkish territory are unacceptable, and that Israel will pay a “high price” for any such attacks.

Turkey does not rule out that there may soon be high-profile revelations and detentions of Israeli agents and intelligence officers in Turkey. Thus, Abdulkadir Selvi, an expert writing for Hürriyet newspaper, believes it is likely that some Israeli intelligence officers will be detained in the near future, and claims that in 2022 “7 men from Israeli intelligence were caught by the neck and thrown in jail.” He then continues: “Do not be surprised if in the coming days you hear that someone from Israeli intelligence has been jailed.”

How can you have a rose without thorns? Or a war without spying? Nevertheless, Turkey fully understands that Mossad is far from an ordinary and amateurish intelligence agency, but rather a special institution with a long track record of running complex operations of this, and other kinds. So far, Turkey’s warnings to Israel about “serious consequences” have been limited to words. What form could these warnings take, in terms of intelligence activities? Naturally, in MIT counter-operations along the same lines as Israel’s operations. But could Turkish intelligence really conduct a retaliatory operation and eliminate, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mossad head David Barnea or IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi? The author will not make any assumptions of this kind, for these are not serious predictions, and could only lead to further and harsher retaliatory measures from Israel.

In contrast to the warnings from Turkey, Israel has so far maintained a professional silence and apparently prefers to speak with deeds rather than “verbal diplomacy.” Turkey and Israel continue in their standoff, but its focus is shifting to the “invisible front” of espionage and counterespionage.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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