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Turkish humanitarian group on Gaza ship denies accusations against them

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 6/4/2010 12:00:00 AM | Özgür Öğret-Sevim Songün

Accusations that the Turkish organization that sent a flotilla of aid ships to Gaza is connected to terrorist groups or knowingly provoked Israel into killing nine people have circulated throughout the media after the deadly assault. Officials with the group deny the claims, saying the passengers on the vessels were ‘100 percent’ peaceful volunteers and that the NGO is pursuing an agenda of broad humanitarian assistance rather than promoting Islam

Countering claims that they put people at risk for propaganda purposes, the Turkish humanitarian group that organized the flotilla to Gaza said no one could have expected Israel’s response and denied sending passengers to their deaths.

“Everybody on the ship was 100 percent activists, even the crew,” said Osman Atalay, a member of the acting board of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or İHH, which has been the subject of speculation and accusations about its motives, philosophy and potential terrorist connections in the wake of Israel’s assault on the ships it sent to Gaza.

Atalay, who was on the Mavi Marmara when nine people were killed, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Friday that all the passengers had volunteered for the aid trip and that many who wanted to join were turned away due to a lack of space on the vessels.

“Everybody on the ship were people in their right minds, who were cultured and knew what they were doing,” Atalay said.

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The most common claims made against the organization have been that it being an Islamist organization gives Turkey a bad international image, that it manipulated people into dying for their cause and that it is a front providing financial support for terrorist organizations.

İHH deputy head Yavuz Dede said no one in their right mind would have thought Israel would go so far and denied knowingly sending people to their deaths. In regard to its perceived identity as an Islamist organization, Dede said, “We have a structure in which Muslims are in the majority,” adding that the term “Islamist” has a different meaning for each person. “Our first references are Islam, human rights and the conscience of the public opinion,” he said.

Human-rights activist Ayhan Bilgen criticized the İHH’s stance and said the protests in Turkey after the attack on the flotilla were not well suited to the “manners of doing a political act together.” He noted there were Christians, leftist politicians, socialists and many others who were not related to Islam but participated together on the Mavi Marmara and the other ships. “When you push the matter to a polarization via Islam, you are unfair to the act itself. You create a great difference in the shaping of the act afterward,” he said.

In response, Dede said the demonstrations held in Istanbul were funeral prayers and since the dead were Muslims, he saw nothing unnatural about the turnout.

Bilgen, however, said there would have been nothing wrong with sending the ships even if Israel’s reaction could have been predicted. “In an act of civil disobedience, you consider every [possibility] including death; you do not practice counter-violence and commit ‘crimes’ knowingly,” he said. “However, I find it hard to understand [that people would] act as if they are surprised.”

[HH] Accusations of terrorism ties

Claims that the İHH has ties to terrorist organizations are part of a smear campaign by Israel, Dede said, noting that reports linking Muslim charity organizations and the İHH in particular to terrorist groups are not substantiated by evidence or a court decision. “I know that your next question will be on Hamas and the next will be on our case in 1997. We have memorized those from the questions of foreign journalists who read those reports,” he said.

In 1997, the Istanbul headquarters of the İHH were raided by security forces. Press reports at the time said automatic weapons were found there. According to Dede, the group was set up due to the political situation in Turkey at the time and nothing came out of the trial after the raid. İHH President Bülent Yıldırım was acquitted and released from prison after three months.

Dede said the İHH holds a “special consultative status” with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

An organization may be considered a terrorist group by one country and as part of the resistance by another, Bilgen said. “It is not possible to clarify the arguments on Hamas or Hezbollah and come to an agreement without clarifying where they stand.” Bilgen said he believes objective criteria should be determined to assess these issues and offered civilian disobedience, political struggle and humanitarianism as “common values of mankind.”

The activist defined his personal criteria for defining terrorism as the presence of violent acts against civilians.

[HH] Not aiding Muslims only

The İHH does not give Muslims priority when offering aid, but goes to disaster-hit and impoverished areas where they are needed, Dede said. According to the group’s secretary-general of domestic relief, Yaşar Kutluay, the İHH is planning to perform 100,000 free cataract surgeries in Africa, 40,000 of which have already been donated. “These are not done in Muslim countries but in Christian ones,” Kutluay added. “Islam tells us to help those in need and it does not specify their any religion in that case.”

Kutluay said all the donations are collected for specific aid missions rather the charity in general. “It is all documented and written where these donations are used. For instance, that this amount of money is used for building this hospital,” he said, adding that the İHH applied to send aid to Gaza as soon as Israel announced that such help would be delivered under its control.

“We said we have 100 trucks full of aid and want to take it to Gaza, which is under Israel’s control,” he said. “It has been one and a half years now and Israel has not responded to our request.”

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