The Palestinian Mohamed Salhab al Tamimi, originally from Hebron (West Bank), disappeared on September 3 in Turkey. His colleagues last saw him as he finished a night shift at Selçuk University Hospital in Konya, in the center of the country, where he was studying medicine. He went home, changed and went to the mosque to participate in Friday prayers. Witnesses quoted by the Turkish agency DHA affirm that, on the way, a van stopped next to the young man and four hooded men forced him into the vehicle, which left in the direction of Ankara.
He was not the only Palestinian to lose track. Up to nine young people who were studying and working legally in Turkey were reported missing throughout last September, in different parts of the country and in apparently unrelated cases. The Palestinian authorities, alarmed, launched an investigation, because there was no trace of them in any official register in Turkey, neither in the police station, nor in the hospitals, nor in the morgues. Salhab’s companions did not explain it to him: “He was a flawless person. He knew the Quran by heart and was very pious. A good boy. He was going to be a great doctor, he was about to graduate. And he had no problem with anything or anyone,” said one, quoted by the DHA. Instead, for MIT, the powerful Turkish secret service, Salhab was a spy.
The disappearances plot exposed in Turkey the clandestine war allegedly waged by the intelligence services of Israel and the Palestinian Authority against Hamas, the Islamist movement which de facto rules the Gaza Strip and which enjoys the protection of the Turkish government. , led for nearly two decades by Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s current president. The mystery only began to be clarified in mid-October, when the Turkish authorities admitted to Palestinian diplomatic representatives that at least two of the disappeared were in custody, but without specifying for what crime.
Last week the newspaper Saba and state broadcaster TRT – both very close to the Turkish government – reported that the secret service had dismantled a network of 15 agents working for Mossad, Israel’s foreign spy agency. Among the photos of the alleged spies published by the press, barely blurred and identified by initials, one could guess the faces of some of the disappeared, including that of Salhab.
According to these revelations, an MIT operation involving 200 agents spent a year monitoring the movements of this alleged spy network working on Turkish soil for the Mossad. It was made up of “individuals of Arab descent” and organized into five cells of three members each that were dedicated to gathering information about Palestinians, especially those pursuing careers focused on technology and defence. Israel has concentrated targeted assassination operations in Tunisia, Syria and Gaza in recent years against Palestinian engineers specializing in the construction of rockets and drones.
Certain components of the network regularly met alleged members of the Mossad in Zurich (Switzerland), Zagreb (Croatia) or Nairobi (Kenya) and acted as couriers to transfer money and orders. The newspaper Saba published excerpts from Salhab’s alleged confession, in which he explains that in 2018 he was contacted via WhatsApp by someone who identified himself as a businessman. He said he owned a business dedicated to sending people of Arab origin to study in Turkey and he wanted to know what the student selection process was like and what help the Turkish government and municipalities offered to Palestinian students.
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After preparing a first report on these issues, for which he received several thousand euros, others followed on the activities of Palestinian NGOs in Turkey and, finally, a meeting with two individuals in Zurich who identified as belonging to “an intelligence organization that does research for the European Union” and that they wanted to help the Palestinians.
The 15 detainees were brought to trial in early October on charges of espionage. But the plot has become even more complicated as new information about the case emerges. Israeli intelligence sources have ruled out any connection to the dismantled spy ring in Turkey. Ram Ben Barak, former Mossad deputy director and current member of the Knesset (Parliament) denied in statements to TV channel 12 on Sunday that they were foreign spy agents. “Turkish intelligence services try to exaggerate their successes, but this is disproportionate information,” Ben Barak argued.
A Mossad source also revealed to Israeli columnist Ben Caspit that the spy agency “does not have a strong network in Turkey”. “This is an internal Palestinian problem, in which the Mossad has played only a marginal role,” Caspit told the Al Monitor digital portal. According to information published by the Palestinian News Agency Shehabclose to Hamas, the spy network in Turkey had been set up by the Palestinian General Intelligence Service (GIS), under the direct orders of General Majed Faraj, one of the closest collaborators of the President of the Palestinian Authority , Mahmoud Abbas.
Signs of an outsourced operation
This information, based on organizations based in Gaza, suggests that the network deactivated by Turkish counterintelligence was subcontracted by Israel and aimed to gather information in order to prepare “liquidation operations” of the Palestinian leaders who had taken refuge in Turkey. Palestinian intelligence services have collaborated in the past with the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to combat the presence of Islamists in the West Bank, but so far there have been no indications of cooperation abroad via the Mossad.
In 2020, Israel reported that Turkey had granted citizenship to a dozen Hamas members, including some implicated in attacks. Israeli espionage places Salah al Aruri, a commander of the armed wing of Hamas, to whom Israel attributes responsibility for several attacks in the West Bank, at the head of the Palestinian Islamist organization on Turkish soil.
President Erdogan took advantage last July of the appointment of Labor Party member Isaac Herzog as head of the Jewish state to restore, through a telephone conversation, the direct contacts that had been broken under the mandates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ( 2009 -2021). The formal termination of relations took place in 2010, after the assault in international waters by Israeli naval commandos against a Turkish flotilla heading for Gaza with humanitarian aid, an operation in which 10 Turks lost life.
The diplomatic crisis was formally closed six years later with the payment of compensation to the families of the victims and the departure from the country to Lebanon of Hamas leaders abroad. His return to Turkish territory is at the origin of the plot of disappearances, espionage and arrests relayed by the media – without the slightest hint of the secrecy which usually surrounds the Mossad or the MIT – from both shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. .
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