Turkish Aid Group Says It's Not Tied To Terrorists

The most popular figure in the Gaza Strip these days is a Turk. He heads the Gaza office of the Turkish humanitarian organization that co-sponsored last week's flotilla of aid ships that attempted, with deadly results, to break Israel's blockade of Gaza.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

In the Gaza Strip, that Turkish charity, IHH, and its members are heroes these days, especially among the Islamist movement Hamas. It was Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in 2007 that prompted Israel to impose the blockade that's now the subject of so much international anger. Many Western aid agencies are barred from having any contact with Hamas leadership. The IHH faces no such restrictions and has been quite active in Gaza.

NPR's Peter Kenyon was just in Gaza and he has this report.

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PETER KENYON: At the Gaza port Saturday, Hamas officials mingled with a disappointed crowd, as another aid ship failed to break the Israeli blockade. A small flurry of activity broke out as people move to greet the arrival of a man with longish silver hair and a healthy beard.

Mohammed Kaya is the IHH Gaza director. And in the relatively small pond of Hamas supporters, Mr. Kaya is a big fish, indeed.

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KENYON: At a time when many aid agencies, including those under the U.N., say their work is hampered by the Israeli blockade and by the need to work around the Hamas-led government in Gaza, IHH is moving full speed ahead. It's funding projects from homes to education, to hospitals to the Gaza Port itself, which IHH helped renovate so it could receive aid vessels.

In an interview at the IHH offices in Gaza, Kaya rejected the allegation that his group supports terrorism. Although he answered most questions in Turkish, he responded in English when he was asked about a European report of past IHH links to al-Qaida.

Mr. MOHAMMED KAYA (IHH): It's not true. We have no any contact with al-Qaida. If we go to Afghanistan, we help too Afghanese people. After that they are saying you have contact with al-Qaida.

KENYON: Kaya says although IHH is an Islamic charity, it's not just Turkish Muslims who support the Palestinians.

Mr. KAYA: (Through Translator) All Turks, including the non-Muslims, are standing by the Palestinian people, especially here in Gaza. And as Prime Minister Erdogan has said, we will keep standing with them until we break the siege.

KENYON: Israel designated the group as a terrorist organization in 2008, mainly because of its ties to Hamas, which continues to endorse violent resistance to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.

Gerald Steinberg, with the Israeli group NGO Monitor, says he hopes IHH's activities will now come in for more scrutiny.

Mr. GERALD STEINBERG (NGO Monitor): The IHH is a member of a broader umbrella group called the Union of Good. The Union of Good is on a U.S. Department of Treasury terrorist list.

KENYON: Mohammed Kaya said of course IHH deals with Hamas, just as it deals with the existing governments it finds in every country it works in. But Kaya also insisted in the interview on giving his views on the state of Israel, which were as hard as that of any Hamas hard-liner.

Mr. KAYA: (Through Translator) This flotilla event has reached its aim. God willing, this may be the beginning of the end of Israel. The button for the end of Israel has been pushed.

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KENYON: On the street where Turkish posters are prominently displayed, 30-year-old Mohammad Salam(ph) says whether or not these flotillas someday impact the state of Israel is far over the heads of most Gazans. He says people are quite naturally responding to the news that eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed trying to break the Israeli blockade.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SALAM: (Through Translator) And they needed someone to support them, to stand by them and that's what they felt from the Turkish. That's why they feel somehow grateful to the Turkish people.

KENYON: Salam and other Gazans worry that the controversy surrounding Turkish-Israeli relations will drown out what they see as the main point: That the world needs to find a way to ease the suffocating strictures Gazans have lived with for the past three years.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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