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[ANALYSIS] Strategic calculations or moral duty? Turkey’s dual-faced response to the Gaza crisis

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Fatih Yurtsever*

On May 1, during a press conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan announced Turkey’s decision to join the case filed by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which accuses Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. Following this announcement, on May 2, the Turkish Ministry of Trade declared a suspension of all export and import activities with Israel. This suspension will remain in place until Israel permits sufficient and uninterrupted aid flows to the Gaza Strip. Previously, on April 9, the Ministry of Trade had stated that Turkey would restrict exports of 54 product groups to Israel, pending a ceasefire in Gaza. The delay in Turkey’s involvement in the genocide case and its gradual escalation of trade restrictions with Israel deserve careful and detailed analysis. Given the circumstances, Turkey could have joined the genocide case from the outset, according to both domestic and international laws. Furthermore, it could have suspended all trade with Israel immediately after the start of Israel’s ground operations in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

On December 29, 2023 South Africa initiated proceedings against Israel at the ICJ. It alleged that Israel had violated the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and committed acts of genocide against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, particularly since October 7, 2023. The convention, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law, serves as the legal backbone of South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ. This convention, ratified in the aftermath of the Holocaust, defines genocide in legal terms and sets out the obligations of states to prevent and punish this most heinous crime. According to the convention, genocide encompasses a range of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. These acts include killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births and forcibly transferring children.

The ICJ is the UN’s highest court for deciding disputes between states. It is made up of 15 judges elected by the UN General Assembly and Security Council for nine-year terms. One of the court’s mandates is to rule on disputes arising from the 1948 Genocide Convention.

The Genocide Convention has been ratified or acceded to by 153 states (as of April 2022, with Zambia). Another 41 United Nations member states have yet to do so. Turkey became a party to the convention through accession, with Approval Law No. 5630 on the Genocide Convention, published in the Official Gazette on March 29, 1950. The convention entered into force for Turkey on July 31, 1951, indicating Turkey’s commitment to the international legal framework for preventing and punishing acts of genocide.

As a member of the UN, Turkey is entitled to apply for intervention in cases at the ICJ. The procedure for such an intervention is outlined in Articles 62 and 63 of the ICJ Statute. Article 62 permits a state to request intervention if it believes it has an interest of a legal nature that could be affected by the court’s decision. The ICJ, however, retains the discretion to either accept or reject applications for intervention. While the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has publicly condemned Israel’s military actions in Gaza, describing them in terms that suggest genocide, it has preferred to wait until May 1 to apply to join the case. In Turkish criminal law, the crime of genocide is defined in Article 76 of the Turkish Penal Code (Law No. 5237), which has been amended in line with the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Turkey has obligations under international law, including the Genocide Convention, to prevent and punish acts of genocide. In this context, the Erdoğan government can file a criminal complaint in Turkish courts under Article 76 of the penal code against Israeli civilian and military officials who it believes have committed genocide in Gaza. However, the Erdoğan administration’s main objective appears to be exploiting the sensitivity of Arab and Turkish public opinion on the Palestinian issue through political rhetoric.

The landscape of Turkish politics shifted dramatically with the March 31, 2024 local elections. The victory of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), coupled with the rise of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, shattered the long-held perception, both domestically and internationally, of President Erdoğan’s unchallenged leadership. This electoral shift has placed immense pressure on Erdoğan to reclaim popular support within Turkey and bolster his image across the Arab world. Capitalizing on the rising global criticism of Israel, Erdoğan has strategically taken a firmer stance against the nation, aiming to resonate with public sentiment and solidify his position as a prominent leader in the region. However, taking concrete steps on this issue could worsen Turkey’s relations with Israel.

The Turkish government’s persistent allegations of genocide against Israel, particularly in relation to military operations in Gaza, could potentially expose Turkey to similar accusations regarding its military activities in northern Syria. For instance, there is a hypothetical risk that Israel might bring a case against Turkey at the ICJ alleging genocide against the Kurdish population in that region.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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