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Too little, too late: Critics see Turkey’s trade restrictions on Israel as admission of guilt

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Six months after Israel launched its war on Gaza, the Turkish government has heeded public criticism and imposed restrictions on its ongoing trade with Tel Aviv, but critics say the measure is overdue and insufficient for alleviating the suffering of the Palestinians.

Critics argue that the measure, taken six months after the conflict began, serves as recognition of Turkey’s continued trade with Israel, despite widespread condemnation of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip and denial of reports by government officials and pro-government journalists.

Anti-Israel sentiment has been running high in Turkey since Israel began pounding Gaza in retaliation for an unprecedented attack by militant group Hamas in the south of Israel on October 7, which claimed around 1,200 lives and led to the taking of some 250 hostages.

As of April 6, 133 hostages remained in captivity in the Gaza Strip, 129 of whom had been abducted on October 7.

The death toll in Gaza, meanwhile, has exceeded 33,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Following Tuesday’s trade restrictions, accusations against the Turkish government of hypocrisy, delayed reaction and the inappropriateness of the measures are dominating the discourse.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has called for a complete halt to trade with Israel and criticized the government for its delayed and limited response to the crisis. CHP Deputy Chairman Dr. Volkan Demir emphasized the need for measures that go beyond restrictions and called for a complete halt to trade in light of the ongoing situation in Gaza.

Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, leader of the opposition Future Party (GP), also questioned why it took the government six months to implement these restrictions, suggesting that the government had the power to stop certain exports much earlier.

Davutoğlu accused the government of being complicit in Israel’s “genocide” and highlighted the discrepancy between the government’s ability to stop trade and its delayed response.

Temel Karamollaoğlu, chair of the Islamist opposition Felicity Party (SP), reflected on the irony of the government’s new stance on Israel, reminding of an SP lawmaker who died of a heart attack while speaking out in favor of ending trade with Israel.

Investigative journalist Metin Cihan, who has been exposing trade relations between Turkey and Israel, criticized the government’s decision as a reaction to expected public protests rather than a genuine stance against Israel’s policies in Gaza. Cihan’s research has shown that trade between the two countries has continued and in some cases even increased amid the conflict, raising questions about the sincerity of Turkey’s position.

The trade between Turkey and Israel, some of which is conducted by people close to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan despite his anti-Israel rhetoric, was first revealed by Cihan in late November. Cihan has since then been reporting on the commerce between the two countries using official statistics and maritime traffic websites, all of which are publicly available.

Erdoğan, who long marketed himself in the Muslim world as the champion of Palestinian rights and a strong critic of Israel, has repeatedly accused Israel of being a “terrorist state” and committing “genocide” in Gaza due to Israel’s ongoing attacks on the Palestinian enclave.

He even compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu to Adolf Hitler.

Despite his anti-Israel rhetoric, Erdoğan has faced accusations of hypocrisy due to the ongoing trade between Israel and Turkey that has shown no signs of winding down at the height of Israel’s war on Gaza and to some extent is conducted by people close to Erdoğan and his family.

Despite the ongoing conflict and Erdoğan’s condemnation, Israel remains an important trading partner for Turkey, ranking 13th on Turkey’s export list in 2023. Trade between the two countries totaled $5.42 billion last year, accounting for 2.1 percent of Turkey’s total exports, a decrease from $7 billion in 2022.

Data from the Turkish Ministry of Transportation shows that between October 7 and December 31, 2023, an average of eight ships per day made a total of 701 trips from Turkish ports to Israel. Of these, 480 sailed directly, while 221 used Turkey as a transit country. Notably, Turkish exports to Israel rose to $430.6 million in December, an increase of 34.8 percent compared to November, indicating a continued and even growing economic relationship despite the political rhetoric.

The Turkish Statistical Institute’s Foreign Trade Statistics Database showed items exported to Israel included precious metals, chemicals, insecticides, nuclear reactor parts, gunpowder, explosives, aircraft parts and weapons and ammunition.

Turkish opposition leaders criticize the apparent contradiction of the Erdoğan government condemning Israel’s military actions while maintaining robust trade relations with the country.

Meanwhile, Israeli media reported earlier this month, quoting a Turkish deputy ambassador to Israel whose name was not revealed, as having told Jacob Blitstein, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, that “Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric against Israel stems from Erdogan’s political considerations in the local elections in Turkey.”

Turkey held local elections on March 31 that ended with the worst defeat suffered by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since its establishment in 2001. The AKP not only lost the vote in some of its previous strongholds but also suffered a decline in its numbers across the country, which led to it coming in second in the election.

The loss of public support for the AKP has been partly blamed on its ongoing trade with Israel.

Skepticism about restrictions

The announcement of trade restrictions on a wide range of products, from building materials such as cement, iron and steel to machinery, chemicals, electronics, and aviation and jet fuel, sparked a wave of commentary questioning the effectiveness and seriousness of these measures. Critics argue that the restrictions are too limited to have a meaningful impact, and some believe they come too late to change the course of the conflict or Turkey’s involvement in it.

Turks took to X to vent their criticism. Some questioned the selection of goods to be restricted and raised the question of whether more critical materials such as boron were deliberately overlooked. Others expressed disbelief and anger at the government’s previous denials on trade with Israel, which are now seemingly contradicted by the imposition of restrictions.

Many see the government’s decision as a reaction to national and international pressure rather than a proactive stance on moral grounds. The timing, following a major public outcry and revelations about the extent of the trade links, has led to accusations that the government is trying to appease the public as protests were expected after Eid prayers on Wednesday.

Continued trade between Turkey and Israel is a point of contention despite strong anti-Israel rhetoric from Turkish officials. Critics argue that the government’s actions contradict its public condemnations of Israel’s policies in Gaza, pointing to a discrepancy between rhetoric and reality.

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