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.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
Mourners chant slogans as they wave Palestinian flags during the funeral ceremony of a Turkish activist who was killed when Israel seized the Gaza-bound 'Freedom Flotilla,' at Beyazit square in Istanbul, Turkey Friday.

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.

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.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

“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.”

The question now, she adds, is to what extent the government will feel a need to pay back those radical groups and leaders.

But one thing is certain – Turkish people today have a far greater voice than even 10 years ago.

“Turkish civil society is much more of an actor in Turkey now. It is part of the struggle for democratization here,” says Ferhat Kentel, a professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Sehir University.
“Previously you couldn’t see the reaction of civilians here. Now there is more freedom," says Izzet Sahin, who oversees IHH’s work in Western countries. "Everybody feels more democratic now. This is not only for Muslims – it is for everybody.”

From disgrace to heroism

The story of the IHH, which started its work helping victims of the war in Bosnia during the 1990s, is instructive. After the Turkish military – which considers itself the ultimate guardian of Turkey’s secular system – kicked out of office in 1997 a government led by an Islamist party, the IHH and other Islamic organizations found themselves on the verge of being shut down.
The group’s headquarters was raided in 1998 by Turkish police, who were searching for weapons and evidence of ties to terrorism. (The group denies that any incriminating evidence was found). A year later, when a massive earthquake hit the outskirts of Istanbul, IHH was forbidden to distribute aid or work in the quake zone.
But now, following the Israeli raid on the aid flotilla, in which nine Turks died, the group’s members find themselves welcomed home as heroes. And, in many ways, they are playing a key role in the way Turkey responds to what some see as irreparable damage to its relationship with Israel – a response that could have far-reaching implications for the region as well as for US-Turkey relations, key to American military operations in Afghanistan.

“It is obvious that ideologically they are driving the post-incident developments and they also determine the tone of the debate,” says Mr. Ozel of the Haberturk newspaper.

In a sign that Turkish Islamic circles might themselves be concerned about a rightward shift, Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen criticized the Gaza flotilla in an interview published today by the The Wall Street Journal. The organizers’ failure to reach an agreement with Israel, said the US-based imam with a large following here, “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters." Mr. Gulen's movement in Turkey controls several media outlets and business groups and wields a high level of political influence.

'Erase Israel from the Middle East'

At Thursday’s Istanbul funeral of the flotilla members killed, and at a downtown rally held the night before to celebrate the other activists’ return, supporters of the IHH and its Gaza mission spoke in less charitable terms.

“I think Israel has to be erased from the map of the Middle East,” says Murat Hazine, an economics student and IHH volunteer who was at the funeral, which – like the homecoming rally – was punctuated with cries of “Damn Israel” and “Allahu akbar” ("God is great") from the crowd, many of whom were swathed in Palestinian flags and the occasional Hezbollah flag. “All the people here are ready for martyrdom in the fight against Israel.”

But analysts warn that any sort of radicalization on the public level could ultimately prove costly for Turkey, as it tries to reposition itself as a responsible regional leader with global diplomatic aspirations.

“In terms of how the world sees Turkey, if you have cries of 'Allahu akbar' coming from officially sanctioned demonstrations, then the question arises whether the country’s efforts are humanitarian or ideological,” says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group.

IHH official misses his Hebrew classes in Israel

IHH has been dogged in the past by charges that it has terrorist links. A French intelligence report accused the group of aiding jihadis going off to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan during the mid-1990s, and of being involved in a thwarted Al Qaeda plot on LAX, the main Los Angeles-area airport. The group has denied all such charges.

But inside IHH’s Istanbul headquarters, Mr. Sahin says it works only as a relief and human rights advocacy group. The two-story stone building, festooned with Turkish and Palestinian flags, is abuzz as a steady stream of people come in to make donations. Psychological counseling for flotilla members is being offered in the basement.

“The officials of this organization are not terrorists, their work is not terrorism, and the organization doesn’t have any links to terrorist organizations. Our works go through local charities to needy people,” say Sahin, who had been the group's director in the West Bank and Gaza until Israel arrested him a few weeks before the aid flotilla was to set sail. After 21 days in jail, he was sent home. He says he wants to go back – not least of all for the Hebrew classes he was taking at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, which he says were giving him an appreciation for the other side's perspective.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

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