Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened Saturday to act “forcefully” in response to any potential attack on Israelis in Turkey, with officials renewing warnings that Iran was trying hard to target citizens of the Jewish state over the weekend.
Senior Israeli officials have warned of “concrete” threats that Iran was trying to kill or otherwise harm Israelis in Istanbul, urging citizens to leave Turkey immediately if possible and those in Istanbul to shelter in their hotel rooms.
“I call on all Israelis in Turkey to obey the instructions of the security forces,” Gantz said in a statement published by his office on Saturday evening.
“Israel is working to thwart Iranian attempts to carry out an attack, and is preparing to respond forcefully to any attack on Israeli citizens — anywhere,” he added.
Friday’s warnings from political and security officials came after a week in which Israel has urged its citizens in Turkey to immediately return home, and issued its highest possible security warning for Istanbul, over concerns that Iranian agents are planning to kill or kidnap Israelis.
On Saturday, Channel 12 news reported that Israel’s Mossad spy agency and Turkish intelligence services had managed to thwart an attack over the past day, without elaborating. The report, which did not cite a source, said the high threat level in the country remained.
“There are Israelis who were minutes from death and do not know it,” an unnamed defense official told Channel 13 news on Saturday. “Another day where we let out a sigh of relief that the attack did not happen.”
The official said there had been “significant activity against the Iranian squads” over the past day, warning that the high alert would remain for at least several more days.
The network said senior Israel defense officials visited Turkey amid the threat, adding that the coordination between Israeli and Turkish intel was “phenomenal.”
Channel 12, citing Iranian reports, said Turkey in the past day prevented an Iranian passenger plane from refueling in Istanbul, and delayed another’s overflight approval by nine hours, in an apparent warning over Iran’s actions in its territory.
The warnings of an impending attack have come amid reports in Hebrew-language press that Israeli and Turkish intelligence had together already thwarted several planned attacks by a broad network of Iranian agents, nabbing some of the suspects.
Israeli officials sharpened the warnings on Friday, saying that they believed that Iran had set in motion efforts to carry out wide-ranging attacks over the weekend, especially in Istanbul, and had ordered cells of Iranians and local Turkish recruits to target Israelis anywhere they could “at any cost.”
There are currently believed to be some 2,000 Israelis in Turkey. On Thursday Israel’s National Security Council issued rare, specific instructions to Israelis in Turkey, telling them not to open their hotel room doors for delivery people, not to post about their travel plans on social media, and not to go to tourist traps, particularly not those popular among Israelis.
On Monday, the NSC raised the warning level for travel to Istanbul to its highest level, putting it alongside Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran as places that Israelis must leave immediately and may not visit.
According to reports, the Iranians have been planning attacks for months, apparently in revenge for the slayings of senior officials blamed on Israel.
Hebrew media identified the Iranian official behind the planned attacks as Hossein Taeb, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official who is currently the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.
The reports, which were unsourced but likely based on comments by Israeli security officials, said that Taeb was under intense pressure to carry out an attack, amid growing frustration in Iran over repeated Israeli successes in penetrating Iran’s most secret organizations.
Tensions between Israel and Iran have intensified in recent weeks, after the assassination of a top Iranian officer in Tehran last month, a number of other mysterious deaths of security personnel inside Iran, airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, threatening rhetoric from Iranian leaders and Iran’s increasing violation of nuclear agreements.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.