Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s upcoming visit to the Gaza Strip, tentatively set for later this month, is proving to be yet another test for Ankara’s Middle East policy, which has been battered by the regional upheaval of the past two years. While Erdogan has long wanted to make an official trip to Hamas-ruled Gaza, he has also been receiving strong messages from the United States, as well as the Palestinians’ Fatah faction, to put the visit off.
With Erdogan insisting that the trip will take place as planned, the Gaza visit is becoming an increasingly high-stakes venture for Ankara, which must prove that its Palestine policy is driven by constructive pragmatism rather than emotion and ideology, and that it can contribute more than just dramatic gestures to efforts to unblock the multisided political stalemate. Failure to do so would likely undermine Ankara’s efforts to promote itself as a regional player that can serve as a broker between rival Palestinian factions as well as between Israel and Hamas. An overtly ideological trip to Gaza could also create friction between Ankara and Washington and put added strain on the recently launched reconciliation process between Turkey and Israel.
Erdogan announced his long-awaited visit to Gaza soon after receiving an apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in late-March regarding the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli troops killed nine Turkish citizens onboard a ship attempting to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza. There have been intimations that Erdogan might visit Gaza in the past, particularly in 2011, when the Turkish prime minister went on a regional tour that took him to Egypt and Libya, but no such visit ever materialized. Should Erdogan go to Gaza later this month, he would be the highest-profile political leader to visit the enclave since the emir of Qatar visited in late-2012. Considering the Mavi Marmara incident and Erdogan’s record of strong criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza, his visit would carry even more significance than that of the emir, who was the first head of state to visit the area since it came under Hamas rule in 2005 and who pledged some $400 million for local projects.