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SA Jews urged to heed Turkey travel warning

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Senior Israeli officials have told Israeli travellers to get out of Istanbul, and if they can’t, to lock themselves in their hotel rooms and not open the door to anyone – not even cleaning staff, room service, or food delivery.

They issued the warning on Friday, 17 June, after a week in which Israel urged its citizens in Turkey to return home immediately. Israel issued its highest possible security warning for Istanbul over concerns that Iranian agents are planning to kill or kidnap Israelis.

According to some media outlets, a group of Israelis in Istanbul received a phone call from security services ordering them not to return to their hotel as Iranian terrorists were lying in wait. They were picked up and put on a plane. “There are Israelis who were minutes from death and didn’t know it,” an unnamed defence official told Israel’s Channel 13 news.

Though the warning is for Israelis, it could apply to all Jews. “There’s no reason for South African Jewry to travel to or holiday in Turkey right now. At this stage, we advise against it,” says the Community Security Organisation’s Jevon Greenblatt. “There is, however, no issue with people flying through Turkey in transit to somewhere else.

“The threat being faced in Turkey is from Iran and its proxies,” he says. “Historically, if these terror groups haven’t been able to get to their primary target, being Israelis or Israeli interests, there’s nothing stopping them from turning their attention to diaspora Jewish communities or individuals, as was seen in Argentina in 1994, amongst other incidents and attempts since. There’s no reason to take this chance.”

Travel expert Kim Kur concurs. She says she has had a number of Jewish travellers asking her if they should cancel holidays in Turkey. “Travel is stressful enough these days, and people need to ask themselves if it’s worth their and their family’s additional worry.”

At least one group of South African Jewish travellers is expected to transit through Turkey, but community members were reassured in a letter emphasising that “this warning concerned holidaying and staying in Turkey. We’re only travelling through the airport, which is incredibly safe. We’re in constant contact with Tlalim which works closely with Israel’s tourism ministry to ensure safety for all participants. It has assured us that at the moment, we have nothing to worry about. As always, safety is our priority.”

Some South African Jews say they will still travel there. One man who is in Istanbul says, “I feel safe. I’m not sure how I would be identified as a target. Also, 14 000 Jews are living in Turkey, so I have higher odds of dying from COVID-19. I haven’t been to shul, but I’m sure it will have tons of security. I walked past a small synagogue along the coast and it had hectic fences, a four-metre high metal gate, cameras, a boom, and two security posts.”

Another South African businessman travelling to Turkey for work says, “I’m not worried at all. I’m heading there on business as a South African. If I were staying in a tourist hotel or resort where I knew there would be other Jews or Israelis, I might feel different, but not on this trip.”

Concern about the threat reached the highest level of government in both countries. Israel President Isaac Herzog spoke on 19 June with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Herzog thanked Erdoğan for efforts to thwart terrorist activities on Turkish soil. The two leaders highlighted the trust being built between their governments and nations. Herzog emphasised that the threat hadn’t yet passed and that counter-terrorism efforts must continue. The two leaders agreed to continue working for peace and stability in the region.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on 20 June that Israel would act “forcefully” in response to any potential attack on Israelis in Turkey. “I call on all Israelis in Turkey to obey the instructions of the security forces,” Gantz said. “Israel is working to thwart Iranian attempts to carry out an attack, and is preparing to respond forcefully to any attack on Israeli citizens — anywhere.”

By 21 June, top Israeli officials said they were concerned about travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt. All of these countries have peace agreements with Israel – the UAE and Bahrain being part of the Abraham Accords. Channel 13 news, citing unnamed Israeli security officials, said that though the threat in the other destinations wasn’t concrete, dangers could emerge if Tehran got “desperate” to commit an attack.

“I would recommend that Israelis not go there, and if they go, they should take extra care,” an unnamed diplomatic source was quoted as saying.

Israel’s Channel 13 said senior Israel defence officials had visited Turkey and that the co-ordination between Israeli and Turkish intelligence was “phenomenal”.

The travel alert also warned people not to post about their travel plans on social media, not to ride in taxis, not to wear anything that could signal they are Israeli, and not to go to “tourist traps”, particularly those popular among Israelis. An anonymous defence official said the Iranian cells operating in the area knew exactly which hotels had Israelis guests and how to recognise them. Sources say Iran hasn’t just dispatched terrorists, but also recruited Turkish citizens to assist them.

Being on Israel’s highest travel warning has now put Turkey on par with Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iran as places that Israelis must leave immediately and mustn’t visit. However, media reports suggest that there are about 2 000 Israelis still in Turkey. They say that many Israelis are enjoying their first holiday post-pandemic, are used to terror threats, and are reluctant to leave.

“There are still immediate attempts by squads to murder Israelis,” a defence source told the Kan public broadcaster. Channel 12, citing Iranian reports, said Turkey had prevented an Iranian passenger plane from refuelling in Istanbul and delayed another’s flight approval by nine hours in an apparent warning about Iran’s actions in its territory.

Tension between Israel and Iran have intensified in recent weeks. This comes after the assassination of a top Iranian officer in Tehran in May, a number of other deaths of security personnel inside Iran, airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, threatening rhetoric from Iranian leaders, and Iran’s increasing violation of nuclear agreements.

Hebrew media identified the Iranian official behind the planned attacks as Hossein Taeb, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official who is the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organisation. They said Taeb was under intense pressure to carry out an attack amid growing frustration in Iran over repeated Israeli successes in penetrating Iran’s most secret organisations.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is expected to visit Turkey on 23 June for talks. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Israel in May, as the once close military allies worked to overcome years of tension.

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