Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid on Monday urged citizens in Turkey to leave “as soon as possible” over threats that Iranian operatives are actively planning attacks on Israelis in Istanbul.
The stark warning comes amid the latest surge in tensions between bitter rivals Iran and Israel, with Tehran blaming the Jewish state for a series of attacks on its nuclear and military infrastructure, inside Iran but also inside Syria.
Lapid made no mention of any alleged Israeli operations against Iranian targets. But, he said, Israelis in Turkey faced “a real and immediate danger” from Iranian agents, citing “several Iranian attempts at carrying out terror attacks against Israelis on holiday in Istanbul”.
“If you are already in Istanbul, return to Israel as soon as possible,” Lapid said in a public warning. “If you have planned a flight to Istanbul — cancel. No vacation is worth your life,” he added, during a meeting with lawmakers from his Yesh Atid party. “Do not fly to Turkey at all,” unless such travel is “essential”, the foreign minister urged Israelis.
Travel warning upped
Hours after his statement, Israel’s National Security Council raised its travel warning for Istanbul to the highest level.
“Given the continuing nature of the threat and in light of the increased Iranian intentions to attack Israelis in Turkey, especially Istanbul, the National Security Council has raised the travel warning for Istanbul to the highest level, Level 4,” NSC said in a statement.
The NSC noted that other parts of Turkey remained at the intermediate threat Level 3, stressing there was no prohibition on using the Istanbul airport as a connecting hub for flights, “provided that one does not leave the airport”.
Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war but tensions have ratcheted up following a string of high-profile incidents Tehran has blamed on Israel. The Islamic republic claimed Israel was responsible for the killing of Revolutionary Guards Colonel Sayyad Khodai, who was shot dead outside his Tehran home on May 22.
The Guards described him as a “defender of the sanctuary”, a term used for those who work on behalf of Iran in Syria or Iraq and vowed to avenge his assassination by “Zionists”.
Israel was also blamed for air strikes last week on the Damascus International Airport, which caused major damage two runways. The airport is in a region south of Syria’s capital where Iran-backed groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, regularly operate.
While Israel rarely comments on individual strikes, it has acknowledged carrying out hundreds in Syria, which the Jewish state’s military says is necessary to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold on its doorstep.
Lapid said some Israelis who recently travelled to Turkey had returned “without knowing their lives were saved”. The alleged attackers were targeting Israeli citizens “in order to kidnap them or kill them”, Lapid said.
Earlier Monday, Israel’s public broadcaster Kan claimed that Iranian operatives had planned to kidnap Israelis in Turkey a month ago. The plot was thwarted after Israel alerted Ankara about the threat.
Lapid thanked the Turkish government “for the effort they’re putting into protecting the lives of Israeli citizens”, without providing details. Turkey has consistently been a popular holiday destination for Israelis, including through more than a decade of diplomatic rupture between the two countries.
Ankara and Israel have mended ties in recent months, with senior Turkish leaders citing the importance of Israel to Turkey’s tourism sector. On Monday, Israel’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper quoted an unnamed security official as saying there are several Iranian “cells” planning operations against Israeli tourists in Turkey.