Saturday, April 09, 2016

09-Apr-16: In Turkey, serious problems with terror and tourism

Three Israelis were among the four visitors murdered in the Istanbul
human bomb attack three weeks ago. From left: Simha Dimri, 60, 
Yonathan Suher, 40, and Avraham Goldman, 69 [Image Source]
It's now less than two weeks to the start of Passover, and in Israel that means hundreds of thousands of people are making out-bound travel plans. Two travel advisories issued in the past 36 hours are making justifiable waves here and beyond.

Times of Israel reported on Friday afternoon, just before the onset of the Sabbath here, that the government's Counter-Terrorism Bureau, a unit of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem
issued a rare statement underlining a recent travel warning calling on Israelis to avoid visiting Turkey, and urging those currently there to leave as soon as possible... The warning, which raised the terror risk in Turkey from level 2 (high concrete threat) to level 1 (highest concrete threat level), came following a terror attack in central Istanbul last month, in which three Israelis were killed and several others wounded. The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the attack... [Times of Israel, April 8, 2016]
The alert comes after a lethal attack, done in the name of ISIS, in the heart of Istanbul exactly three weeks ago ["19-Mar-16: In human bomb attack today in Istanbul, numerous Israelis among the victims"].

The Israeli warning comes not only after the March 19, 2016 attack but also in the wake of three others since the start of 2016,. A bombing in Turkey's capital, Ankara, just a couple of days earler killed at least 37 people. The Israeli travel advisory says the threat of jihadist attacks is valid for all of Turkey, not only Istanbul and not only the major tourist attractions.
Real and immediate terror threats remain throughout the country... [Israelis visiting Turkey should] avoid crowded tourist areas, follow instructions of local authorities and get out as soon as possible... There are immediate risks of attacks being carried out in the country, and we stress the threat applies to all tourism sites in Turkey... [Times of Israel, April 8, 2016]
Prior to the alert, it was reported (via Israel's Channel Two news on Wednesday) that more than 110,000 Israelis have plans to travel to Turkey during this Passover. The numbers were much larger in the not-so-distant past. An analytical piece in Haaretz pointed out some weeks ago that
Israelis used to travel in droves to Turkey... But travel plunged after the May 2010 raid by Israeli commandoes on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was trying to break the blockade of Gaza. Diplomatic relations grew tense and tourism dived, never quite recovering. The record year for Israelis visiting Turkey was 2008, when some 540,000 arrived. But the year after the Mavi Marmara incident, the number plummeted to just 75,000. It has climbed since then, but last year the number of Israeli tourist arrivals was only 224,000 – well under half the record number. The Israelis who do travel to Turkey tend to be Arabs, with the rest of the seats on flights taken by business-people and travelers making connections to other destinations through Istanbul. ["Even Before Terror Attacks, Jewish-Israeli Tourists Were Avoiding Turkey", Rina Rozenberg, Haaretz, March 20, 2016
Naturally, Israel is not alone in its concern with what is happening in Turkey. The families of American diplomats and military personnel based in southern Turkey were ordered to leave in the wake of elevated security concerns two weeks ago:
"We understand this is disruptive to our military families, but we must keep them safe and ensure the combat effectiveness of our forces to support our strong ally Turkey in the fight against terrorism,” said Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command. [Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2016]
Tonight (Saturday), the US kicked up its concerns a notch, warning Americans of immediate "credible threats" to Turkish tourist areas
in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya... Please exercise extreme caution if you are in the vicinity of such areas,” read the statement. [Consulate General of the United States in Istanbul, this evening
The economic impact is serious. Foreign visitors to Turkey brought in almost $31.5 billion in revenues in 2015. But visitor traffic was already down by more than 10 percent in February 2016, prior to the human bomb attack in central Istanbul:
[T]ourism was hit by a crisis in relations with Russia and security fears after a series of attacks. The number of foreigners entering Turkey fell 10.32 percent in February from the same period the year earlier, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said in its latest monthly statistics. Tourism from Russia recorded one of the biggest falls amid the crisis in relations following Turkey's shooting down of a Russian war plane in November, with visitor numbers plunging over 51.5 percent. Georgians -- who frequently head over the land border on shopping trips -- were the most frequent visitors to Turkey, followed by Germans and Iranians, it said. Tourism from Iran was one of the few sectors to show an upsurge, with visitor numbers rising almost 17 percent in the period. ["Turkey tourism dives amid security fears", AFP, March 29, 2016]
Istanbul [Image Source]
Since starting to write this post, we have gotten word of two more Istanbul terror incidents:
A small bomb left on the side of a road in central Istanbul exploded late Saturday, slightly wounding three people, Turkey's state-run news agency reported. The bomb, which was designed to create a loud noise, was left near an overpass in the city's central Mecidiyekoy district, the Anadolu Agency reported. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Three people were hospitalized, but were not in serious condition, the report said. [Associated Press, tonight]
Turkish police carried out a controlled explosion of a bag left in Istanbul's popular Taksim square on Saturday, a Reuters witness at the scene says, hours after the U.S. embassy warned of "credible threats" to tourist areas. Police cordoned off Taksim, a square lined with hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists, while a member of the police bomb squad was seen opening what appeared to be a bag, the witness says. The bomb squad later detonated it in a controlled explosion, causing a loud boom to echo across the square, the witness says. [Reuters, today]
(Click here for some of our previous Turkey-focused blog posts.)

Whatever Muslim-on-Muslim security concerns the authorities in Turkey already had, things are likely get substantially more tense for them Sunday when
The world's Islamic countries began their annual meeting Sunday in Istanbul, where they are set to focus on the Palestinian cause, conflicts in member states and combating terrorism. The meeting of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) comes once again at a time of turmoil in many Muslim nations, with conflicts in Syria and Yemen dragging on, and several states including Turkey, bloodied by militant attacks. The 13th annual OIC conference began with senior officials adopting the agenda and will be followed by a foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. Over 30 heads of state and government will attend the summit hosted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday and Friday. With guests set to include Saudi King Salman, the event is taking place under the highest security, with police stationed all around the venue in central Istanbul. The OIC said the summit was to issue a resolution on the Palestinian issue and support for international efforts to relaunch a "collective political process". The gathering comes at a time of rising Islamophobia in many western nations in response to a spate of attacks by the Islamic State group. ["Islamic countries to focus on Palestinian cause at Turkey summit", The Arab Weekly, April 10, 2016]
We can assume the "rising Islamophobia" of this report does not affect the Erdogan regime since, notwithstanding the blood-letting on the streets of its largest cities, what's principally on their minds is fixing the Arab/Israel conflict. Good luck.

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