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Q&A - Turkish Gaza aid group under the spotlight

REUTERS - Israel’s bloody seizure of an aid ship bound for Gaza has put the Turkish charity group that organised the convoy in the spotlight.

Palestinians ride aboard boats in a preparation for the arrival of a convoy of ships to Gaza's Seaport, May 30, 2010. Israel's bloody seizure of an aid ship bound for Gaza has put the Turkish charity group that organised the convoy in the spotlight. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Files

All nine pro-Palestinians activists -- eight Turkish nationals and a Turk with U.S. passport -- killed on board the Mavi Marmara were members or volunteers for the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).

Here are some questions and answers on the group:


-- IHH says it is an Islamic charity group established in the mid-1990s to provide aid for Muslims in Bosnia and Chechenya. It has been involved in more than 100 countries. It is one of many Islamist charities that have gained prominence in recent years in Turkey, where a rising middle class of pious Muslims has led to a more overtly Islamic identity. The group, which has its office in a religiously conservative neighbourhood in Istanbul, says it is funded entirely by donations. The IHH has been involved in previous aid convoys bound for the Gaza Strip, which has been under an intensified blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas Islamists seized control in 2007.


-- Israel says IHH supports Hamas and other Islamist radical groups. Although IHH is not classified as a terror organisation by Israel, it is outlawed there and has been on an Israeli Defence Ministry blacklist for years. IHH officials say they have nothing against Israel. Bulent Yildirim, IHH chairman, denies his charity has direct links to Hamas or ties to militants, describing the accusation as Israeli “propaganda”. The group says it has a branch office in Gaza and a branch office in the West Bank. Yildirim has referred to IHH members killed during the raid as “martyrs”. He has said the group will continue sending aid ships to Gaza.


-- Turkish authorities reportedly carried out a raid on IHH in 1997, but IHH officials have dismissed it as politically motivated at a time when Turkish security officials were cracking down on Islamist groups. Asked about the incident on Friday, Yildirim told reporters, “Turkey had a different political context in the 1990s, and a different political power ruled, which played a game with us. I was acquitted by a court anyway.”

-- Izzet Sahin, who works for IHH’s foreign affairs department, was arrested by Israeli security forces in April on suspicion of aiding Palestinian organisations banned by Israel.

-- Evan Kohlmann, a U.S. terrorism consultant who wrote a 2006 paper on the group’s radical links that is widely cited by Israeli analysts, told Reuters this week, “It has a loose relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it has taken a number of fairly extreme political positions that are uncharacteristic of a pure humanitarian group. It has been vocal in its support, whether material or political, for Islamic insurgents in Iraq and even Hamas in Gaza. That being said, most of the evidence of IHH’s involvement in material wrongdoing dates back to between 1996 and 2005.”


-- IHH says it is strictly an NGO with no political affiliation. Turkey’s Islamist-leaning AK Party government publicly supported the flotilla, urging Israel to let it pass and saying the initiative was humanitarian. Ankara has denied giving any instructions to the IHH. The Wall Street Journal said Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s most influential preacher who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, criticised the flotilla in an interview published on Friday for not seeking Israel’s agreement. Yildirim replied, “We expected condolences from Mr. Gulen, and instead he took Israel’s side.” Yildirim called on supporters to join a protest on Saturday organised by Saadet Party, a fringe Islamic party that vies with the more moderate AK Party for conservative voters and which won about 5 percent of the vote in last year’s municipal elections.