Quiet battle between Turkey and Israel threatens to erupt into open clash in Jerusalem as Ankara invests millions in boosting radical forces.
“Jerusalem is our city,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan recently declared in a speech in Ankara. Earlier, he vowed to liberate Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. His aggressive rhetoric underpins alarming Turkish activity in Israel’s capital city.
Turkey invests heavily in boosting its influence in Jerusalem and radicalizing local Arab residents. Israeli experts and security officials are monitoring these efforts with growing concern.
Turkey’s moves constitute a “pan-Islamic war” against Israel in Jerusalem, leading scholar Dan Scheuftan warns. The battle takes place mostly under the radar, in the streets and alleyways of the holy city. But this quiet war could erupt into open conflict, soon.
Turkey spends tens of millions of dollars in Jerusalem every year to boost Islamic tourism, support radical forces and promote anti-Israel views. Security officials said that Turkey also funded the renovation of 4,300 homes and 70 mosques in the city.
Ankara sent Arab youth to radical conferences in Turkey and arranged rides for Palestinians who harass Jews on Temple Mount, a Jerusalem think tank said. A close Erdogan associate played a leading role in organizing such activities.
Notably, the Turks closely cooperate with Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the former Mufti of Jerusalem and a radical Al-Aqsa preacher. Authorities barred him from Temple Mount this year for toxic incitement against Israel and the West.
Turkish hubs in Jerusalem
Turkey’s presence in Jerusalem is highly visible, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) says. Turkish flags, restaurants and tourists are a common sight in East Jerusalem on Temple Mount.
A shop and restaurant located a short distance from the Western Wall is a hub of anti-Israel activity. The venue and its staff promote hostile Islamic messages and an aggressive worldview, JCPA says. The shop was renovated with Turkish funds and displays Turkish and PLO flags alongside pictures of Erdogan.
Turkey’s efforts are weakening the influence of local Arab leaders, the report said, including more secular figures. Radical elements affiliated with Hamas and the hardline northern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement are now a more dominant force.
In 2019, former Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz initiated a plan to stop Turkey’s subversive activities. Israel will not allow the Turkish government to promote “unrest and incitement” in Jerusalem, he said at the time.
In parallel, the Israel Police and security services are closely watching Turkey’s moves in East Jerusalem, journalist Yossi Melman reported. This year, police officers removed a Turkish plaque that authorities say was unlawfully placed at a city cemetery.
However, Israel has largely adopted a discreet approach so far as not to spark an active conflict. But this cold war could turn into a violent confrontation next time Jerusalem faces political or security tensions.
Will Jerusalem battle heat up?
With tensions and friction growing, a clash in Jerusalem may be only a matter of time.
One area of immediate concern is the expected arrival of Arab tourists following Israel’s peace deals Gulf states. The Palestinians are protesting these plans and will try do disrupt them. Observers have warned that visits to Temple Mount could trigger fierce resistance.
During previous flareups, Israel was able to contain the unrest by working with US and Jordanian mediators. But Israeli officials may now discover that radical actors backed by Turkey are hindering peace efforts while instigating violence and chaos.