Turkey accuses Israel of espionage on its territory

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Turkey has accused Israel of spying on its territory and plotting attacks on Palestinians living there as relations between the two countries worsen over the conflict in Gaza.

Turkish intelligence agents and police carried out raids in Istanbul and seven other provinces on Tuesday to thwart “international espionage activities,” said interior minister Ali Yerlikaya. “The Israeli intelligence services intended to commit actions . . . on a tactical basis against foreign nationals residing in our country.”

Authorities detained 34 people, mostly foreign citizens, who were allegedly recruited by Israeli spy agency Mossad, according to a senior intelligence official. Another dozen were linked to the alleged plot, but some have left Turkey, the official added.

“Israeli intelligence has been recruiting individuals for the purpose of using them in operations targeting Palestinians and their family members,” the official said. The suspects “were involved in reconnaissance, surveillance, assault and kidnapping operations and/or plots targeting foreign nationals in [Turkey] on Mossad’s behalf.”

The arrests are likely to further inflame tensions between Israel and Turkey, whose leaders have publicly sparred over the Israeli military’s response to deadly attacks on Israel by the Palestinian group Hamas on October 7.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has departed from the stance of his western allies, defending Hamas as a “liberation organisation” and levelling harsh criticism against Israel since it began bombing Gaza in response to Hamas’s attack. He has likened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler and said he should be tried as a war criminal.

Netanyahu angrily rejected the comparison, saying Erdoğan was “the last person who can preach morality to us”. He accused the Turkish leader of “committing genocide against the Kurds” and holding the “world record for imprisoning journalists”, as well as hosting Hamas leaders. 

Turkey does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist group, and its members are free to live in the country. Turkish officials have acknowledged that Ismail Haniyeh, chair of Hamas’s political bureau, may have been in Turkey on October 7.

Israel would “pay a very, very heavy price” if it tried to assassinate members of Hamas in Turkey, Erdoğan warned last month after a recording of Ronen Bar, head of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet, was leaked to the media. Bar said the Israeli government would “take out Hamas” in Turkey, Qatar and other countries where members were found.

The Turkish intelligence official said Mossad had recruited the suspects through job listings posted on social media to carry out “piecemeal tasks” such as photographing targets and placing GPS devices on their cars, to help Israeli agents “prepare for their ultimate mission”. Cryptocurrency and hawala money-transfer methods were used to pay the informants to conceal that Israel was the source of the money, the official said.

The Israeli campaign in Gaza has derailed a fledgling rapprochement between Turkey and Israel.

After more than a decade of tensions, the countries re-established diplomatic ties and appointed ambassadors in 2022, but both have recalled their diplomats since the conflict in Gaza began.

In a separate operation last week, Turkish police detained 32 people with suspected Islamic State links who are accused of planning attacks on synagogues and churches in Turkey.

Additional reporting by Neri Zilber

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