Pro-Palestine protesters held in Istanbul as oil exports to Israel flow via Turkey

Azerbaijani crude flows through pipeline, despite Ankara's ban on direct trade with Israel over the war in Gaza

Thirteen activists from the 1000 Youth for Palestine group were held after dawn raids. AP
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Members of a pro-Palestinian youth movement were arrested in Istanbul on Sunday after protesting against Azerbaijani oil exports to Israel via Turkey, highlighting the delicate balance Ankara seeks between its economic and geopolitical alliances, and Turkish public opinion.

Thirteen activists from the 1000 Youth for Palestine group were held in dawn raids after throwing paint and breaking a door at the Turkish headquarters of Socar, the Azerbaijani national oil company, according to videos posted online and a protest organiser interviewed by The National.

For the first five months of this year, Socar has exported tens of thousands of barrels of Azerbaijani crude oil daily through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, according to ship-loading data.

The oil was then shipped from the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan to Israel.

“We protested in front of the Socar building and we said 'cut ties with Israel and shut down the pipeline',” said Huseyin Arif Sariyasar, one of the founders of 1000 Youth for Palestine. “That’s why 13 of our friends were arrested from their homes.”

All of those arrested by the security branch of Istanbul police are aged 20 to 27 and were charged with damage to property, he added.

The detained activists will go before a court in Istanbul on Monday, another protest organiser said. Arrest warrants were issued for three more people whom security forces were not able to reach, he added. Socar and Istanbul's police department did not respond to requests for comment.

The arrests highlight the issue of energy exports to Israel via Turkey, despite Ankara having banned direct trade with Israel in protest over the war in Gaza, in which more than 36,400 Palestinians have been killed.

They also highlight a delicate balancing act played by the Turkish government: it is likely loath to disrupt ties with one of its closest regional allies, Azerbaijan, and lose income associated with transporting the oil, but is also facing persistent pressure from the public over its ties with Israel.

Turkish politicians including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have viciously criticised the Israeli government – he recently called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “blood-feeding vampire” – and have sent significant amounts of aid to Gaza.

At the same time, Ankara has not officially downgraded diplomatic ties and until recently continued to allow trade – something Turkish protesters see as fuelling military operations in Gaza.

Others argue that Turkey banning trade with Israel will serve to hurt Palestinians, who also rely on Turkish imports arriving through Israeli-controlled borders.

Much of Mr Erdogan’s religious conservative support base is vocally pro-Palestine and in local elections in March his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost votes to more conservative politicians who promised to take a harsher anti-Israel stance.

Protesters have also directly criticised Mr Erdogan online, showing the depth of anger in some parts of Turkish society at what they see as pro-Palestinian rhetoric undermined by continuing to deal with Israel.

Following the election losses, Turkey announced it was unilaterally halting all trade with Israel. The two countries shared a trade volume of more than $7 billion last year, according to UN and Turkish Statistical Institute figures, mostly consisting of exports to Israel.

Turkish firms with outstanding orders destined for Israel have since been permitted to sell the same goods to third countries, “on the condition that it [the order] is not sent to Israel”, a Turkish Trade Ministry official told The National. It is not clear how Turkey can enforce a ban on goods sold to third countries ending up in Israel.

The Azerbaijani crude oil exports via Turkey have continued despite the ban on direct Turkey-Israel trade.

Israel, a close partner of Baku, relies on imported crude oil – from Russia and several African countries as well as Azerbaijan – and its own natural gas for energy supplies.

Despite the pressure on Turkey and Socar, there is no indication that Azerbaijan will stop selling oil to Israel, or that Ankara will stop facilitating it.

The Turkey section of the 1,768km-long Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is operated by the Turkish state oil pipelines company Botas and industry officials say unilaterally reneging on contracts would be almost impossible for Ankara.

“It is important to note that intergovernmental agreements are obligations that governments must fulfil – honouring these agreements under all circumstances is crucial for maintaining nations’ credibility,” said Mehmet Dogan, an Istanbul-based oil and gas analyst.

“When countries fail to honour the agreements they have signed or refuse to meet their conditions, they set a precedent for other countries to similarly evaluate agreements on different matters.”

The war in Gaza and public pressure in Turkey may be influencing business decisions for other Turkish companies, however.

Protesters previously targeted Zorlu Energy, which conducted business in Israel. In a public disclosure to Turkish markets, the firm last week announced it was selling all its shares in its three Israeli subsidiaries, “with the aim of focusing on renewable energy projects in the medium term”.

Protesters vow to continue demonstrating.

Updated: June 03, 2024, 11:47 AM