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Warning of an Iranian attack on Israeli tourists in Istanbul remains in place

What happened: The threat of a terror attack against Israelis visiting Istanbul remains at the highest threat level.

  • Israelis are being urged to cancel their travel plans and if there, to leave immediately.
  • According to Israeli intelligence there is an active terror cell looking to kill or kidnap Israeli tourists.
  • In a combined effort of Israeli and Turkish counter-terror they have already prevented more than one attack in the last few weeks, but assess that an Iranian cell, which including local Turks, remains active.
  • Israeli media has included dramatic accounts of Israelis picked up in the streets and taken immediately to the airport, without their belongings, as there were Iranian agents waiting for them in their hotel room.
  • Yesterday President Isaac Herzog called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank him for the efforts of preventing an attack so far. According to Herzog’s office,  “the two leaders highlighted the great contribution of this cooperation to the trust being built between the governments and nations”.
  • Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also related to the threat during yesterday’s cabinet meeting, saying: “We are currently witnessing Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in various overseas locations. The security services of the State of Israel are working to thwart attempted attacks before they are launched. We will continue to strike those who send the terrorists and those who send those who send them. Our new rule is: Whoever sends – pays.  Alongside this, we have warned Israeli citizens to avoid flying to Turkey – especially Istanbul – at this time if it is not necessary. The danger is still great. I call on the citizens of Israel to show personal responsibility and safeguard their security.”
  • On Saturday night Defence Minister Benny 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.”
  • On Friday, the National Security Council issued unusual advice for Israelis in Istanbul to lock themselves in their hotel room doors and not to open them for even housekeeping.

Context: Turkey is a very popular destination for Israeli tourists. Currently there thought to be around 2,000 Israelis in the country, down from 5,000 last week.

  • The timing of the threat is thought to be driven by Iran’s desire for revenge after a series of recent mysterious deaths of senior Iranian commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including Col. Hassan Sayad Khodayari who was shot by unknown gunmen in Tehran last month.
  • Israel and Turkey have been gradually improving diplomatic ties since last summer.  This latest threat has seen strong cooperation between Israel and Turkish intelligence and security services.
  • For Turkey, tourism is a crucial sector of their economy, and it has a vested interest to prevent any attack.
  • Over the weekend Israel named the head of the IRGC’s intelligence service, Hossein Taeb, as the person responsible for trying to carry out an attack.
  • Earlier this year, Turkish intelligence exposed an Iranian plot to assassinate an Israeli businessman as revenge for the targeted killing of the head of the Iranian nuclear programme Mohsen Fakhrizadeh two years ago.

Looking ahead: Both Israeli and Turkish leaders recognise that the threat is ongoing and that counter-terror measures remain in place.

  • The warning is expected to remain in place until the terror cell has been arrested or intelligence confirms they have left Turkey.
  • In the Herzog-Erdogan phone call the two leaders agreed to continue working for peace and stability in the region by means of open and ongoing dialogue.
  • Later this week Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will travel to Turkey and meet with his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
  • As relations improve the two foreign ministers could announce a decision to restore ambassadors.

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