Turkey-Israel crisis: Why the formerly obscure IHH is playing a key role
Turkey-Israel ties have been shattered by Monday's raid on the IHH-owned Mavi Mamara, the largest boat in the Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla.' Turkey's push for democracy has given the IHH new prominence.
At the heart of the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla' lies the rise of the previously obscure IHH. The Turkish Islamic nongovernmental organization (NGO) bought and manned the Mavi Mamara, by far the largest boat in the flotilla and the one that saw a fatal skirmish between rod-wielding activists and Israeli commandos who killed nine activists after resorting to gunfire.Skip to next paragraph
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It was the financial heft of the IHH that set this flotilla apart – even before the Israeli raid – from previous convoys that had bobbed toward the blockaded Gaza Strip with little effect. But Israel is troubled that its ally Turkey has in effect paved the way for such a group to rise to a position of such strength and influence.
Indeed, some very profound changes, both promising and troubling, have reshaped the landscape of Turkish society. The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has driven a wide-reaching effort at democratization and liberalization since coming to power in 2002. This has allowed civil society organizations to flourish – a phenomenon that has been especially pronounced for Islamic groups, which had previously been targeted by secularist state institutions.
“They have more room to operate in Turkey now,” says Soli Ozel, a political analyst and columnist for the Haberturk newspaper. “The more room comes from the fact that we do have a party in government that doesn’t see them as alien creatures.”
Turkey gave its blessing to the IHH's flotilla role
So far from seeing the IHH, which had been targeted by the government in 1997, as alien, Turkish authorities helped make the flotilla possible by selling the Mavi Mamara, a decommissioned 1,000-passenger cruise ship formerly owned by the Istanbul municipality, for a mere $800,000.
The blessing Ankara gave IHH's lead role in the Gaza aid convoy also reflects a potentially troubling move of groups from Turkey’s Islamist far right into the mainstream, particularly regarding the volatile Israeli-Palestinian issue, says anthropologist Jenny White of Boston University.
“What it says to me is that the far-right Islamists have captured the political issue of Gaza and the government is using this for their purposes,” says Professor White, who is currently working on a book about Islam and Turkish nationalism. “It doesn’t mean that society is becoming more radicalized but the radical segment of society has captured the issue of Gaza and the anti-Israel sentiment, which has a lot of political capital behind it.”