- Erdogan called Hamas “freedom fighters”, angering Israel.
- Türkiye will celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of a secular republic.
- Possibility of eclipse on centenary celebrations due to mass rally.
ISTANBUL: President Tayyip Erdogan addressed hundreds of thousands of supporters in one of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies since the Israel-Hamas war began, appealing to his political base a day before the centenary of Turkey’s secular republic.
“Israel has been openly committing war crimes for 22 days, but Western leaders can’t even call for a ceasefire with Israel, let alone respond to it,” Erdogan told crowds waving Palestinian flags in Istanbul.
He said, “We will tell the whole world that Israel is a war criminal. We are preparing for this. We will declare Israel a war criminal.”
In an hour-long speech, Erdogan described Israel as an occupier and also reiterated his claim that Hamas was not a terrorist organization.
Turkey has condemned the deaths of Israeli civilians caused by a Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 that killed 1,400, but Erdogan this week called the group Palestinian “freedom fighters.”
He also criticized some Western countries’ unconditional support for Israel, which was strongly rebuked by Italy and Israel.
Unlike many NATO allies, the European Union and some Gulf states, Turkey does not consider Hamas a “terrorist” organization. It has long hosted its members, supported a two-state solution, and offered to play a role in negotiations for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas during the October 7 attack.
Political analysts said Erdogan was keen to strengthen his criticism of Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip and eclipse Sunday’s celebrations marking Turkey’s secular roots.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and director of the Istanbul-based think-tank Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, said Gaza’s worsening humanitarian crisis and pressure from political allies have prompted Erdogan to step up his rhetoric.
“Turkey will defend its principles and share these with the international community, but if it hopes to play such a diplomatic role it needs to do it with more delicate diplomacy,” Ulgen said.
The heads of allied nationalist and religious parties – which helped Erdogan win tight elections in May – attended the rally at Istanbul’s old airport. Erdogan criticized opposition parties for not calling Netanyahu a “terrorist” and using the same term in reference to Hamas.
Erdogan had invited all Turks to join the rally, where he said, “Only our flag and the flag of Palestine will fly”. His AK Party had predicted a turnout of more than one million people.
Analysts say as the 100th anniversary of modern Turkey approaches on Sunday, newspaper headlines are likely to be dominated by news of Saturday’s rally rather than celebrations of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Erdogan, Turkey’s longest-serving leader, and his AK party have waned support for Ataturk’s Western-facing ideals. In recent years, portraits of Erdogan have appeared alongside those of Atatürk on government buildings and schools.
“The symbolism is clear—and no one in Turkey is unaware of it—that a pro-Palestine rally could overshadow the celebration of the secular republic’s centennial,” said Asli Aydintasbaş, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
He said that while Erdogan’s comments about Hamas reflected Ankara’s long-held position, they were intended to take advantage of anti-Israel sentiment domestically and “reinforce Turkey’s Sunni conservatives”.
The government has said that the Israel–Hamas conflict will not restrict celebrations of the 100th anniversary, for which it has organized events across the country.