People gather over the Galata Bridge in solidarity with Palestinians, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, following the first morning prayer of the New Year in Istanbul, on January 1, 2024. The Gaza war ended a gradual thawing in Turkish-Israeli relations that culminated with the reappointment of ambassadors in 2022. Image Credit: REUTERS

ANKARA: ISTANBUL: Turkey announced on Tuesday it had detained 33 people suspected of planning abductions and spying on behalf of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.

Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said the police raided 57 locations in eight provinces as part of an investigation - dubbed “Operation Mole” - launched by the Istanbul prosecutor’s counter-terrorism bureau and the MIT intelligence agency.

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He said on social media platform X that the suspects were believed to be aiming to identify, monitor, assault and kidnap foreign nationals living in Turkey.

It was not immediately clear if they were Israeli nationals or locals allegedly working with Mossad.

Yerlikaya’s office released video footage showing armed security service agents breaking down doors and handcuffing suspects in their homes.

The Istanbul public prosecutor’s office said 13 additional suspects remained at large.

The raids came weeks after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of “serious consequences” should Israel attempt to target figures from Palestinian militant group Hamas living or working in Turkey.

“There is an insidious operation and sabotage attempts being made against Turkey and its interests,” Erdogan said after the raids were announced.

“We will definitely destroy this game,” he said in televised remarks.

Relations between Turkey and Israel imploded following the outbreak of the war in Gaza nearly three months ago.

Erdogan has turned into one of the world’s harshest critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Turkish leader last week compared Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler and demanded that Israel’s Western allies drop their support for the “terrorism” being conducted by Israeli troops in Gaza.

Erdogan has also recalled Ankara’s envoy to Tel Aviv, and pushed for the trial of Israeli commanders and political leaders at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The president’s ruling Islamic conservative AKP party also led tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets of Istanbul on Monday for one of Turkey’s biggest anti-Israel rallies of the entire war.

End of thaw

The Gaza war ended a gradual thawing in Turkish-Israeli relations that culminated with the reappointment of ambassadors in 2022.

Israel and Turkey resumed long-stalled talks about a major Mediterranean Sea natural gas pipeline project that could have reshaped geopolitical alliances across parts of the Middle East.

Turkey won words of gratitude from Israel in 2022 for detaining a group of Turkish and Iranian nationals were allegedly planning to murder and kidnap Israeli tourists in Istanbul.

Erdogan and Netanyahu met briefly on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in New York in September and were discussing holding a formal summit this year.

The Turkish MIT intelligence service conducts periodic raids against suspected Israel operatives working in major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul.

Most are accused of conducting surveillance work on Palestinians living in Turkey.

Istanbul served as one of Hamas’s foreign political offices until the outbreak of the Gaza war.

Turkey informally asked Hamas leaders to leave, days after militants conducted raids into southern Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people - most of them civilians - according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The Islamists also took around 250 people hostage. Israeli officials believe more than half of them remain in Gaza.

The Gaza health ministry says Israel’s relentless military campaign, which it says is aimed at destroying Hamas, has killed around 22,000 people in Gaza since October 7- mostly women and children.

UN agencies have voiced alarm over a spiralling humanitarian crisis facing Gaza’s 2.4 million people, who remain under siege and bombardment, most of them displaced and huddling in shelters and tents, amid dire food shortages.