Turkey hits Israel with trade restrictions after months of “words not action”

Turkey hits Israel with trade restrictions after months of “words not action”
Erdogan has come under mounting pressure to punish Israel economically. / Turkish presidency
By bne IntelliNews April 9, 2024

Exclamations of “What took you so long!” were almost audible as Turkey on April 9 announced restrictions on exports to Israel that will apply until a ceasefire is announced in Gaza.

Israel quickly announced that it would respond to Turkey’s measures—which include curbs on steel, fertiliser, aluminium, construction product, cement and jet fuel exports—with its own restrictions on products from Turkey, thus a tit-for-tat trade war is under way.

Ever since the war between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas broke out last October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticised for not combining trade sanctions on Israel with his fiery rhetoric. Critics have complained of a “words not action” approach. For instance, Erdogan has permitted a Turkish port to continue facilitating lucrative exports of Azerbaijani and Iraqi oil to Israel, despite his regular condemnations of “war crimes” committed by the Israelis in their invasion and seige of Gaza.

The “double standards” issue on March 31 took a toll on Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which went down to a humiliating defeat in Turkey’s local elections, with a sizeable number of Turks who usually support Erdogan’s party choosing instead to vote for the New Welfare Party, or Yeniden Refah Partisi (YRP), a right-wing Islamist party that has made strident demands in relation to the economic punishment of Israel.

Over the weekend, thousands of Islamist protesters denounced Erdogan for maintaining trade with Israel.

Erdogan went ahead with the package of trade barriers imposed on Israel after the Israelis refused Turkey's request to join air drops of humanitarian aid to Palestinians in densely populated Gaza. The US started dropping deliveries of aid into Gaza by air last month, with the Netherlands, France, Spain and others contributing.

"There is no excuse for Israel to block our attempt to drop aid to starving Gazans," Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said, adding that Turkey has decided to take a "series of new measures" against Israel.

Ankara announced that restrictions on exports to Israel would apply to 54 types of products in all with immediate effect. Israel said it was preparing a ban on products from Turkey.

Turkey’s “decision will remain in effect until Israel declares an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and allows a sufficient and uninterrupted flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip,” the Turkish Trade Ministry said, accusing Israel of condemning Palestinians to hunger.

Turkey’s exports to Israel dropped 28% y/y to $1.9bn during the first five months of the Gaza war, official data from the Turkish Statistics Office (TUIK, or TurkStat) show. Manufactured goods, which include construction materials, are the biggest trade component—they represented a third of the $714mn of goods shipped by Turkey to Israel in the first two months of this year, Bloomberg noted.

Israel’s total gross import of goods in 2023 was $91bn, of which $4.6bn came from Turkey, making it the country’s fifth-largest supplier, it added. 

Over many years, Turkey, like Qatar, has become known as a place of exile and safe haven for top Hamas officials, who have also used the country for organising and supply activities. Ankara says any Hamas activities have been restricted to the civilian sphere though the Israelis claim to have intelligence showing that is not correct.

Israel therefore accuses Turkey of supporting Hamas, even though it is a Nato member, with fellow Nato members including the US considering Hamas a terrorist organisation. Erdogan has called the group’s militants “freedom fighters”.

On March 21, Turkish and Israeli diplomats became embroiled in a furious row after Erdogan vowed at a local election rally to “send [Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu] to Allah to take care of him, make him miserable and curse him”.