This piece originally appeared in GlobalPost. (Photo credit: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)
ANKARA, Turkey — Even before Nael Salamah introduces himself, he hurriedly whispers in Arabic, “Don’t tell her anything about what has happened, she doesn’t know our mom and brothers are dead.” He’s talking about his 14-year-old sister, Ahid, who has been in a hospital in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, for two weeks.
As a symbol of good will toward Palestinians, Turkey has so far taken in 79 injured Gazans for treatment — among them Ahid, who was comatose on arrival. Before Ankara, the teen had spent some time in a Jerusalem hospital being treated for a bad shrapnel wound to her head. “There were 16 shells dropped on our home or within 250 meters,” her brother recalls. The Israeli airstrike about five weeks ago left him, his father and one brother with less severe injuries than Ahid, while his mother and two brothers were killed.
We walk into Ahid’s hospital room together. Her limbs are long and her cheeks are full, displaying her youth. She wears a soft, close-lipped smile, and a small red dot — burst blood vessels — swims near the iris of her right eye, which lingers slightly to the right. “Marhaba,” — hello, in Arabic — she says very slowly. “I’m so thankful for Turkey’s help,” she gladly offers up, again, speaking sluggishly. “That is from her brain injury,” the doctor says, referring to the lagging speech.
Turkey still hopes to bring another 150 injured Palestinians like Ahid to its hospitals, but the obstacles have been many, says the Ministry of Health. “We have to get approval from the hospital [where they’re originally treated], Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and then from the Israeli Department of Defense,” Ali Uzun, a spokesperson for Turkey’s Health Ministry, explains in an email. Earlier this month, only 18 of 39 planned evacuees made it onto Turkish planes after Israel denied permission to exit for 21 of the selected injured Gazans.
Still, the country provides assistance in other ways: before Wednesday’s ceasefire, the Turkish disaster relief agency had spent $1.5 million on aid to Gaza in the form of packaged meals, blankets, beds and other supplies. By Thursday, aid was pouring into the strip from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Oman.
But the late aid from the Arab countries doesn’t make up for their silence as Palestinians suffered in the Gaza Strip, says Nael Salamah. “They’re just Arab countries by name,” he says, as he rolls his eyes and chokes back tears. “I’m most disappointed by Egypt[‘s behavior].” The 30-year-old dentist struggled to get into neighboring Egypt when he found out Ahid was in Turkey. He had to go through Egypt to get a visa from the Turkish Embassy in Cairo. Egypt has refused entry to refugees at the Rafah border crossing, only letting in a small number of injured Gazans.
“They wouldn’t let me in at the Egyptian border,” he recalls, frustrated. “They said, ‘You’re a young Palestinian guy, we can’t let you through.’” Eventually, he did get through — for 72 hours. “In five minutes [at the embassy] I get my ticket, I get my visa, I get my everything. Thank you, Turkey.”
That thanks isn’t just for the visa or the medical help for his baby sister. Salamah and many others like him are grateful for Turkey’s outspoken support for Palestinians.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who until this month was prime minister, accused Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians in July, when Israel first started its military operations in Gaza. Erdogan likened Israel to Hitler in one public speech. “They always curse [Adolf] Hitler, but they [Israel] now even exceed him in barbarism,” the leader declared. After the airstrikes began and the death toll leapt, Turkey declared three days of mourning for Gaza.
It isn’t the first time Turkey’s relationship with Israel has been strained over the treatment of Palestinians. Relations have been icy between the two countries ever since eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed at the hands of Israeli naval commandos in 2009 after a Turkish aid flotilla attempted to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza.
With such a strong public stance on Gaza, it only makes sense that Turkey would back it up with substantive help, says Mehmet Ali Tugtan, assistant professor in political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. By using Turkey’s strained aid resources — which are already coping with violence and humanitarian crises along its borders with both Syria and Iraq, and over 1 million Syrian refugees within its borders — to bring a few hundred injured Palestinians for medical treatment, Turkey gains credibility on its position on Gaza.
“But can they do something really substantial? No,” he explains. “What Turkey really wants is to be able to get into Gaza to treat patients there, provide medical, economic and other support.” As long as Israel continues its blockade on the densely populated strip, that won’t happen, says Tugtan. For now, “it’s better that they do something [to provide aid] than nothing,” he adds.
But even this limited aid raises further questions: “What happens after they get treated? What if they want to stay? Do you just send them back to get killed or hurt again?” asks Tugtan.
Salamah wonders the same thing. His visa in Turkey only lasts 30 days, and after that, he has no idea where he’ll go. “No home, no clinic, nothing,” he whispers through tears. A greater challenge than coming home to nothing, perhaps, are the actual logistics of getting back, Salamah says. “I can’t go through Israel and I can’t go through Egypt. I honestly have no idea how I’ll get back.”
Uzun, from Turkey’s Ministry of Health, says there is a plan. “After the patients have fully recovered and have had a chance to rest, we will fly them, escorted, to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. From there a Turkish diplomatic escort will accompany them home, to Gaza.”
For now, all Salamah cares about is his sister’s well-being. “When I came she handed me something and said, ‘This is a gift for my brother,’” whom she doesn’t know has died. “He just graduated from high school,” Salamah says. Feeling helpless, he sobs, “He’s gone.” He says he’s trying to muster the energy to break the news to Ahid.