Palestine unites a fractured Turkish society
At a time when Turkey is approaching snap elections, to be held on June 24, and the country is divided due to the political atmosphere, the Palestinian cause has united all political parties and sections of the society under one banner.
It is difficult to find a single issue that all Turkish political parties can agree on and adopt a shared rhetoric toward. For Turks, however, the Palestinian cause is something far beyond any foreign policy issue and is different from any other Middle Eastern problem. This is due to deep historical and ideological dimensions of the matter in the eyes of the Turkish people.
The Turkish leadership and people strongly reacted in condemnation of the killing by the Israeli security forces of more than 60 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during protests on Monday, at the same time the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted strongly, calling for a massive demonstration on May 18, the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, at Yenikapi in Istanbul to condemn Israel. He also called all the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for an extraordinary meeting to send a strong message to the world from Istanbul. His reaction received support from the other Turkish political parties, as the Palestinian issue is a sensitive topic for all of them. The main opposition Republican People’s Party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, described the Gaza killings as “Black Monday.”
The Palestinian cause has turned into greater significance due to the conservative nature of the current Turkish leadership.
Thousands of Turks marched in protest along İstiklal Avenue in central Istanbul, and there were other demonstrations across Turkey, some of them outside US and Israeli embassies and consulates. There were also marches to commemorate the victims of the Israeli attacks, and the government declared three days of mourning. The protests, a deep-spirited demonstration of support for the Palestinian cause, were attended by figures and groups with links to all Turkish parties.
Turkey’s Palestinian policy reflects the pulse of domestic politics and societal balances. The Turkish people take an interest in Turkish foreign policy issues; however the deepest interest is reserved for Palestinian matters. The heart of the Palestinian question for Turks is the status of Jerusalem (Al-Quds) and who controls the sacred sites in the holy city. This has been the case for Turks from the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Although Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the state of Israel in 1948 — for which it was criticized for years by the Arab world — it has always remained as sensitive to the rights of Palestinians as any country that does not not recognize Israel. Turkey’s focus on the Palestinian cause is, to a far greater degree than any other Muslim country, as much about its “principled foreign policy” and maintaining a domestic unity.
The Palestinian issue has the same importance to all political parties in Turkey. While it is clearly an issue for conservatives, it is also important to those on the left, who see the struggle as a conflict between oppressed people of the Middle East and Israel, supported by an American imperialist hegemony. The Palestinian cause also concerns nationalists, who have been openly hostile to the US and Israel.
However, many observers perceive that the Palestinian cause has turned into something of even greater significance due to the conservative nature of the current Turkish leadership, particularly after Davos and the Mavi Marmara case. However, support for the Palestinian cause dates back to the early 1970s, when Turkey’s leftists were pro-Palestine for ideological reasons. At the time, conservatives were largely uninterested in the issue. However, as a result of a variety of factors on international and domestic levels, ownership of the Palestinian cause shifted from the left to conservatives from the 1980s on. That is not to say the leftists were or are indifferent, however.
Though having different motivations and ideas about how best to stand up for the rights of the Palestinian people, the opposing sides in Turkish politics now unite under same banner to call on the world to take a stand against Israeli aggression.
The protests against the US decision to move its embassy and the killing of Palestinians united Turkey and reflect a spirit of unity among politicians on the issue, even as they prepare to compete against each other in the upcoming election.
I wish that the heartbreaking Gaza situation had not happened and become a matter that has united Turkey’s fragmented politics and society; but perhaps Turks could also unite rather than divide over other issues concerning them and the people of the region, particularly at a time when solidarity and unity is the most influential tool to bring peace to the world.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.