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The False Friends of Palestine

Last month's deal between Turkey and Israel will do little to help Palestinians in Gaza.

In May 2010, a group of Turkish activists calling themselves the Gaza Freedom Flotilla attempted to defy Israel’s illegal naval blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian aid to the impoverished Palestinian coast.

Still in international waters, medical, educational, and infrastructural supplies in tow, they were stopped by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The Israeli soldiers boarded the Mavi Marmara and opened fire, killing ten and wounding many others.

The attack sparked a major diplomatic fallout between the two nations. Turkey demanded that Israel issue an official apology and, more importantly, end its embargo. Israel balked. Now, after six years of impasse, Turkey and Israel have announced a deal that normalizes relations between the two countries.

What allowed for this unanticipated rapprochement? Simply put, Turkey abandoned Gaza in all but the most superficial ways.

For the Israeli government, ending the blockade is unthinkable. If Palestinians had freedom of maritime travel in and out of Gaza, they could begin creating global and independent connections — connections that would surely undermine the strength of Israel’s occupation.

Until recently, Turkey’s opposition offered crucial support to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who imagined an end to the food and resource shortages caused by the Israeli siege. But the new deal offers only cosmetic changes and negligible concessions, doing little to quicken the demise of Israel’s punishing blockade.

A Raw Deal

While the full text of the Turkey-Israel accord is yet to be released, the general outline has emerged.

First, the two nations will normalize relations: they will accept ambassadors, remove sanctions, and cooperate militarily. Second, in exchange for Israel’s official apology, as well as $20 million for the families of the Mavi Marmara victims, Turkey will enact a law canceling legal claims against Israeli soldiers involved in the attack.

Third — if Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to be believed — Turkey will prevent Hamas from using its Turkish offices to plan anti-Israeli actions. And finally, Israel will allow Turkey to send humanitarian aid to Gaza through the Israeli Ashdod Port. In return, Turkey will drop its half-decade-long demand that the Gaza blockade end, and acknowledge Israeli’s right to control the territory.

Arabic and English media outlets across the political spectrum have been quick to present the agreement as a “lessening of the blockade,” largely because Turkey and Hamas have sold it that way. In an unabashedly false statement, Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim claimed that the embargo on Gaza had been “largely lifted.” And in a widely cited press release, Hamas thanked President Erdoğan for “easing the blockade.”

But there is also evidence that the agreement has created tension within Hamas, which has been reticent about its own alleged participation in the deal.

When rumors began appearing that Hamas leader Khaled Mashal was consulted prior to the deal — or was at least made aware of the upcoming accord — Hamas publicly distanced itself from the negotiations. The agreement, spokesperson Usamah Hamdan said, “is a Turkish decision, without the involvement of Hamas.”

Their tight-lipped posture may reveal internal disagreement — the Lebanese paper al-Akhbar reports that many in Hamas are not satisfied with the terms of the deal, despite public statements to the contrary.

Nevertheless, Hamas’s and Turkey’s rhetoric seems to have created a narrative of mutual benefit — satisfying both Turkey’s desire to save face after dropping its anti-blockade demand and Hamas’s desire to remain friendly with Ankara, one of its few remaining allies.

Turkey’s aid commitments include much-needed projects like a power plant, a desalination facility, and a two-hundred-bed hospital — all of which, on the surface, sound like important victories against the Israeli occupation. However, the nature of the blockade and occupation will impede Turkey’s ability to address Gaza’s devastating electricity, water, and medical problems.

Take the hospital. Without major changes, the Israeli siege will keep essential equipment and supplies from ever reaching its doors and prevent Gazans from studying medicine abroad. And when military and political figures decide it’s once again time to “mow the grass” in Gaza, the Israeli air force will wipe out any infrastructural improvements that have been made.

Furthermore, these projects will be subject to Israeli “security” oversight that systematically undermines their aims. For example, one year after the 2014 massacre, despite hundreds of millions of dollars raised, the UN program to restore Gazan infrastructure had rebuilt exactly zero of the eighteen thousand homes destroyed by the IDF — because Israel, citing security concerns, allows concrete and building supplies through the Ashdod Port at a very slow rate.

Without strong, explicit language in the new agreement, there is little reason to believe that Turkey will have freer access to Gaza than the United Nations. Netanyahu has already made it clear that the security measures will remain in place, and that all Turkish aid must travel through Ashdod first.

And it’s not just infrastructural supplies. The list of items prohibited from entering Gaza on security grounds is notoriously comprehensive. During a 2009 American delegation to Gaza, for instance, a ban on lentils, pasta, tomato paste, and similar food prompted then congressman Brian Laird to ask, “When have lentil bombs been going off lately? Is someone going to kill you with a piece of macaroni?”

Even if Turkey is able to circumvent Israeli restrictions, an increase in humanitarian aid — no matter how big — still stops far short of “largely lifting” the siege.

In particular, the deal says nothing about Palestinians’ freedom of movement — a major concern for a population whose most important route out of the country, the Rafah Crossing, is often closed and who languish in an “open-air prison” because they’re denied the right to travel or leave. Any accord that is silent on such a pressing issue can’t be seen as a win against Israeli occupation.

Turkey Turns Its Back

By negotiating without Palestinian representatives, Turkey has further solidified the notion that Israel is sovereign over Gaza — a major compromise that both Turkish and Palestinian observers have not missed.

Addressing the Turkish authorities, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, said, “From the moment you sign it [the agreement], you are making this blockade legal.”

Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi was equally critical, saying, “They didn’t get the siege lifted, which is the real issue.” Instead, Ashrawi contends, the two nations signed “a pact of self-interest.”

Turkey — perhaps feeling the strain of its mediocre bid for European Union membership, its war on Kurdistan, and its involvement in the larger Syrian war — wants a stronger relationship with Israel. And it has at least one specific economic reason to restore relations with the regional powerhouse: the deal will open talks over a potential gas pipeline that would funnel fossil fuels from sites on the Israeli-controlled Mediterranean coast through Turkey on their way to Europe.

Such a pipeline could make Turkey more valuable to the European Union, especially because it would eat into Russia’s large share of the European natural gas market. Stock in Zorlu Enerji — a Turkish energy company with operations in Israel — and Dalek Group — an Israeli conglomerate with a share in the Leviathan Gas Field in the Mediterranean — jumped at news of the deal.

But enrichment and aggrandizement won’t help the Palestinians, and more empty promises and pledged aid won’t end the blockade.

Palestinians have already received plenty of rhetorical commitments. What they lack — and what is needed to challenge the Israeli occupation — is what their fair-weather friends in the Turkish government now refuse to give: genuine solidarity.