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Washington slams Erdogan for hosting Hamas officials

US State Department says Turkish president's meeting with leaders in Palestinian group isolates Ankara
State Department's comment comes after Donald Trump praised Erdogan at the Republican convention (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

The US State Department has slammed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for hosting Hamas officials, saying that the move isolates Ankara from the international community. 

Erdogan had met with a delegation headed by Hamas political leader and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul on Saturday, who praised Ankara's support for Palestinians and congratulated Turkey for the newly discovered gas fields in the Black Sea.

On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Washington "strongly objects" to the meeting, noting that Haniyeh is on a US terror blacklist.

'This condemnation plays to the base of the current US and Turkish governments without inflicting significant damage to their bilateral relationship'

- Joe Macaron, Arab Center Washington DC

"Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and EU and both officials hosted by President Erdogan are Specially Designated Global Terrorists," Ortagus said in a statement.

"The US Rewards for Justice Program is seeking information about one of the individuals for his involvement in multiple terrorist attacks, hijackings and kidnappings."

The comment is in reference to Saleh al-Aruri, the deputy chair of the Hamas political bureau, who attended Saturday's meeting. Washington has a $5m reward for information that would lead to Aruri's capture. 

"President Erdogan's continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza," Ortagus added.

"We continue to raise our concerns about the Turkish government's relationship with Hamas at the highest levels."

Hamas relations

Erdogan has in the past rejected the charge that Hamas is a terrorist group.

"Hamas is not a terrorist organization and Palestinians are not terrorists. It is a resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power," the Turkish president wrote on Twitter in 2018.

"The world stands in solidarity with the people of Palestine against their oppressors."

Hamas decisively won the last legislative Palestinian election in 2006. It now controls the besieged Palestinian enclave of Gaza after an intra-Palestinian struggle with the  Fatah movement.

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Although the US considers the group a terrorist organisation, the group has long enjoyed close ties with many of Washington's Arab and Muslim allies. 

Egyptian officials regularly meet with the Palestinian group, often as part of mediation efforts with Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia's King Salman hosted Hamas leaders in the holy city of Mecca. But relations between Riyadh and the Palestinian organisation have cooled since then, with Saudi officials denouncing the Islamist group as part of their push against the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said the State Department's statement is linked to domestic political calculations - with the US elections nearly eight weeks away and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting Israel.

"This condemnation plays to the base of the current US and Turkish governments without inflicting significant damage to their bilateral relationship, and moreover it was issued by the State Department, not the White House, which means that Trump wants to keep the communication line open with Erdogan," Macaron told MEE.

Trump lauds Erdogan

Less than 12 hours before the State Department released its statement against Erdogan, President Donald Trump praised the Turkish president at the Democratic national convention.

The US president had hosted a group of Americans previously detained abroad who were freed with the help of his administration, including Pastor Andrew Brunson who was released from a Turkish jail in 2018 after spending two years under arrest. 

Turkish authorities had accused Brunson of backing a 2016 failed coup against Erdogan.

"I have to say that, to me, President Erdoğan was very good," Trump told Brunson on Monday night.

"I know they had you scheduled for a long time, and you were a very innocent person, and he ultimately after we had a few conversations, he agreed, so we appreciate that, and we appreciate the people of Turkey."

The US and Turkey, two Nato allies, have had several spikes in tensions over the past years, with Washington objecting to Ankara's efforts to acquire weapon systems from Russia and Erdogan opposing the US alliance with Syrian Kurdish militants in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.