President Tayyip Erdogan will attend what is believed to be one of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict on Saturday, appealing his Islamist electoral base a day before Turkey’s secular republic’s centennial.
Political observers claimed his scheduled speech in Istanbul was intended to amplify his escalating criticism of Israel’s shelling of Gaza and to overshadow Sunday’s ceremonies commemorating Turkey’s secular beginnings.
Turkey has condemned Israeli civilian deaths caused by Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage through southern Israel, but Erdogan this week called the militant group Palestinian “freedom fighters”.
He also criticised some Western nations’ unconditional support for Jerusalem, drawing sharp rebukes from Italy and Israel.
Unlike many NATO allies, the European Union and some Gulf states, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. It has long hosted the Islamist group’s members, supports a two-state solution and has offered to play a role in negotiating the release of hostages abducted during the Oct. 7 assault.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and director of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based think-tank, said Gaza’s worsening humanitarian crisis and pressure from political allies had prompted Erdogan to sharpen his rhetoric.
Turkey “will protect its principles and share these with the international community, but it needs to do this with a more delicate diplomacy if it expects to play such a (future) diplomatic role,” Ulgen said.
The heads of Erdogan-allied nationalist and Islamist parties – which helped him secure victory in tight May elections – are expected to attend the rally at Istanbul’s old airport. Some Turkish media reported several Arab leaders were also invited.
This week, Erdogan invited all Turks to attend the rally where he said “only our flag and the Palestine flag will wave”. His Islamist-rooted AK Party predicted more than a million people would come.
Modern Turkey’s 100th anniversary comes on Sunday, when newspaper headlines could be dominated by news of the Saturday rally rather than celebrations of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, analysts say.
Erdogan, Turkey’s longest-serving leader, and his Islamist-rooted AK Party have eroded support for the Western-facing ideals of Ataturk, who is revered by most Turks. In recent years, Erdogan’s portraits have emerged alongside that of Ataturk on government buildings and schools.
“The symbolism is clear and no one in Turkey is unaware of it – that the pro-Palestinian rally is likely to overshadow celebrations for the centennial of the secular republic,” said Asli Aydintasbas, visiting fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
She said that while Erdogan’s comments about Hamas reflected Ankara’s long-held position, he aimed to benefit from anti-Israel sentiment domestically and “consolidate Turkey’s Sunni conservatives”.
The government has said the Israel-Hamas conflict will not curb celebrations of the 100th anniversary, for which it has organised events across the country.