Turkish diplomats and government officials told the New York Times that the Turkish organization that led the Gaza-bound flotilla in late May has extensive connections with Turkey’s political elite, and the group’s efforts to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-run territory received support at the top levels of the governing party.
A senior Turkish official close to the government was quoted by NYT as saying that as many as 10 Parliament members from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party were considering boarding the Mavi Marmara, the ship which was raided by Israeli commandos, but were warned off at the last minute by senior Foreign Ministry officials concerned that their presence might escalate tensions too much.
Nine Turkish nationals were killed during the raid.
According to the report, the organization in question, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, often called IHH, has come under attack in Israel and the West for offering financial support to groups accused of terrorism. But in Turkey the group has helped Erdogan "shore up support from conservative Muslims ahead of critical elections next year and improve Turkey’s standing and influence in the Arab world."
Ercan Citlioglu, a terrorism expert at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, told NYT that the government “could have stopped the ship if it wanted to, but the mission to Gaza served both the IHH and the government by making both heroes at home and in the Arab world.”
The Turkish government, for its part, said the group acted independently and that its leadership had refused to drop plans to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, despite requests from the government. Government officials told NYT they had no legal authority to stop the work of a private charity.
Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, was quoted by NYT as saying that the organization and the Justice and Development Party, called the AK Party, had no substantive ties. “The IHH has nothing to do with the AK Party, and we have no hidden agenda,” Bagis said.
However, the NYT report said many of the 21 people listed on the organization's board have or had close links to the AK Party. In January, Murat Mercan, chairman of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a senior party official, joined an overland aid convoy to Gaza organized by the organization that tried to force its way through the Rafah crossing from Egypt to Gaza, according to the report.
Semih Idiz, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News in Turkey, wrote, "How can such a large country as Turkey, with interests in four continents, and with an export- and investment-driven economy requiring extra caution all around the globe, be dragged to the brink of war by a nongovernmental organization?” The answer, he added, is that the IHH is a “GNGO” — a “governmental-nongovernmental-organization.”