Some Israelis who were in Istanbul reportedly fled Turkey last week by Israeli security officials, who were acting on the basis of intelligence indicating that the tourists were in immediate danger.
Channel 13 reported Monday that a woman visiting a market received a phone call from a senior Israeli official telling her not to return to her hotel because Iranian attackers were waiting for her and her husband there.
Instead, a convoy of about 10 Israeli security officers took the couple to the airport, leaving their belongings at the hotel, and then to Israel, where they were investigated for evidence of a plot against them, according to the channel.
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No further details were released about the couple, including whether they were individually targeted for a specific reason or whether they were threatened just because they were Israelis. It was also not clear how many people had been contacted and asked to leave immediately.
According to Channel 13, the government waited until Monday to warn the public about the imminent threat against Israelis in Turkey, given the local authorities there, who wanted time to deal with the situation. Israel on Monday issued the harshest travel warning for Istanbul due to Iran’s attempts to attack Israeli travelers. The Israelis were ordered to leave the city immediately, while Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called on the Israelis to leave Turkey.
Tensions between Israel and Iran have risen in recent weeks, following the assassination of an Iranian officer in Tehran last month, airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, statements by Iranian leaders and growing Iranian violations of nuclear agreements.
Two weeks ago, Channel 12 reported that Israeli security officials had telephoned and directly warned more than 100 Israeli citizens in Turkey that they were in the first point of Iran and demanded their return.
Channel 13 reported that Israel is currently not planning to send rescue flights to Israelis in Turkey and many in the country are not planning to flee anyway. However, flight cancellations began to pile up.
Despite the warnings, news site Walla reported that 21 flights with 3,750 passengers departed from Israel for Turkey on Monday. Some can only pass through Turkey; Israeli authorities have said it is still safe for Israelis to stop in Istanbul as long as they stay at the airport.
For those who canceled flights, Tourism Minister Yoel Rozvozov has urged airlines to return money to Israelis who heed the warning.
Separately, the news site Ynet reported on Monday that Turkey’s National Intelligence Service recently arrested Iranian agents who were planning to carry out a shooting and kidnapping operation against Israeli tourists in Turkey.
The report did not cite a source, but an Israeli security official told Reuters that Turkey had arrested several people suspected of belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Ynet reported that there may be free Iranian agents and that the authorities’ hunt for them is not over.
Turkish officials and the Iranian embassy in Ankara did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Monday, Israel’s National Security Council raised the Istanbul warning to Level 4, the highest level, meaning that Israelis are explicitly asked not to visit the area and leave if they are there. Countries with a Level 4 warning of a “serious threat” include Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran.
The agency said it had raised the level of alarm between “the constant threat and the escalation of Iranian intentions to harm Israelis in Turkey, with a focus on Istanbul”. Other parts of Turkey remained at the third level of alarm, with recommendations to avoid visits to the country for non-essential reasons.
Lapid called on Israelis in Turkey to return immediately, as well as urging citizens to cancel their travel plans in the country.
Lapid’s instructions came at the start of a meeting of his Yesh Atid party following reports Sunday that Israeli and Turkish security services had thwarted an Iranian plot to kidnap Israeli tourists to Turkey last month.
Israeli security officials reportedly briefed their Turkish counterparts on the plan and urged them to take measures to thwart the attack. And Jewish media reports, citing unidentified Israeli top-level sources, did not specify the nationality of Iran’s suspected agents, the number of those involved or whether any of them had been arrested.
Channel 12 said on Monday evening that “there are still Iranian cells in the area” and “continued co-operation between Mossad and Turkish security services, impressive co-operation, to prevent this series of possible attacks”. The report, which did not specify the source, said there were an indefinite number of arrests.
The National Security Council reviewed Turkey’s travel advice last month at Level 3, saying there was a concrete threat to Israelis from “Iranian terrorist operatives” there and in neighboring countries.
This warning came after the assassination of a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, for whom Iran blamed Israel.
Khodaei was killed by five bullets in his car by unidentified gunmen on two motorcycles in central Tehran on May 22. He is said to have been involved in killings and kidnappings outside of Iran, including attempts to target Israelis.
As Israeli diplomatic missions were on alert, predicting that Iran would seek revenge for the assassination, the Kan channel reported that the Iranian attempt to operate in Turkey took place before the officer was killed.
Shortly before Lapid made his comments Monday, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said any “response” from the Islamic Republic against Israel would be within Israel.
“If we want to respond to Israel’s activities, our response will be to it and not to a third country,” Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Bahaduri Jahromi told Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency on Monday that Iran “will take any necessary retaliatory action in response to any foreign action by the Israeli regime.”
Since the assassination of Khodaei, another officer of the Quds Force – who oversees the foreign operations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – has died in mysterious circumstances, as did an engineer at a military base and two scientists, one of whom was involved in the development of missiles and drones. Iran suspects Israel killed two scientists by poisoning their food, according to a report Monday.
According to Channel 12, Israel believes the Iranians have an increased incentive to launch attacks on Israeli targets at the present time, as the IRGC seeks to restore prevention inside and outside its borders.