The first visit of a Hamas leader to Turkey, in Februrary 2006, caused great controversy in the host country.
When Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal arrived, it was during the fourth year of AK Party rule, and there were still questions about the “real intentions” of the Islamist-based ruling party in the minds of Turkey’s secular establishment.
Following the March 1 Decree crisis with the United States, when Turkey refused to allow American forces to invade Iraq from the South of Turkey, and at a time when the Turkish government was heavily criticising both the US – over an attack in the Iraqi town of Fallujah – and Israel because of the assassination of Hamas leaders in previous years, the visit of Khaled Meshaal also ruffled feathers in international circles.
But this time around, the visit of Ismail Haniyeh to Turkey has been comparatively quiet. The Palestinian leader in Gaza met Prime Minister Erdogan, political party leaders and with members of human rights organisations. He made speeches, and paid a sentimental and symbolic visit to the Mavi Marmara ferry. He visited Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque, led a prayer there and shook hands with Turks who have supported the Palestinian cause perhaps more than that of any other nation in the last couple of years.
Haniyeh said from in front of the Mavi Marmara: “The Mavi Marmara broke the siege around Gaza” and thanked activists, listening to him. But this statement is an exaggeration: the Mavi Marmara incident at most only shook the siege but could not break it definitively.
After the Mavi Marmara attack in 31 May, 2010 when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists during a raid on the ship, Turkish and Israeli relations sank to rock bottom. Meanwhile the siege around Gaza did not move an inch; Israel simply allowed some aid into Gaza temporarily.
What really changed the situation in the Middle East concerning the siege was the strategic change in leadership in Arab countries, mainly Egypt. With the impact of street revolts in neighbouring Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s increasing influence in national politics, the embargo on Gaza was eased.
Ismail Haniyeh is able to pay visits to certain regional capitals because of the Arab revolt. The same current in politics is now forcing Palestinian groups to sit together and find a new way to unite powers against Israel.
From the Turkish point of view, this visit also related to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Turkey’s desire to become involved in Middle East politics as a regional “provider of order” as Foreign Minister Davutoglu conceptualises it, requires it to maintain good relations with Hamas and support the Palestinian cause. Turkey’s support for Palestinians is welcome in streets in the Arab world, because for many years people have been fed up with the silence of their own governments against Israel’s atrocities.
And this good impression is opening the way for Turkey, which would like to have a say in the restructuring of the region.
Bora Bayraktar, Euronews-İstanbul