Unraveling the IHH

by Jeffrey Dastin:

The lobby is small. A front desk, two couches, a flat-screen TV, and a large water well. A stairway leads to a few floors of offices and conference rooms. At first glance, it is surprising that Turkey’s decent relations with Israel took a cataclysmic turn in this place, the headquarters of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation or IHH. Yet reporters flood the NGO’s office daily. Volunteers from Britain come as Nigerian officials go. Anyone in Fatih, a large district in central Istanbul, can direct you to the IHH. And everyone in Turkey knows what it is.

Huseyin Oruç, the deputy president of the IHH, takes care of government and press relations. He co-founded the IHH in 1992 with President Fehmi Bülent Yıldırım in response to the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia. “We have an unconditional target,” said Oruç. “Wherever people are in need, we will show solidarity.” Unrestrained, Oruç can talk extensively about the humanitarian initiatives of the IHH. A team of four visited Japan to distribute food and medicine after the March 2011 earthquake and has returned multiple times since. IHH doctors have performed sixty thousand eye cataract surgeries in several countries in Africa. Others in the IHH have built hospitals and orphanages in Pakistan.

The passage of the Mavi Marmara, set to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza in May 2010, was funded by the IHH. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But this is not the whole story. “I deal totally with the flotilla issue, and other projects of course, but I am giving much of my time for Flotilla II,” said Oruç. The infamous Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which attempted to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade in May 2010, was in part organized by the IHH. Israeli soldiers boarded the IHH’s Mavi Marmara ship and killed nine Turkish passengers in international waters. While the international community condemned the attack, Israel refused to apologize to Turkey, claiming its soldiers were threatened. Turkey meanwhile withdrew its ambassador to Israel and strictly limited their communications. Aggravating the tension, the IHH promised to send a second flotilla near the one-year anniversary of the first, although it never came to fruition.

Despite the flotilla’s impact on Turkish-Israeli relations, Oruç denies contact between Turkey and the IHH. “We are not doing this for political reasons,” said Oruç. He added, “When you fulfill the requirements under the law [of an NGO], no government has the right to stop you.” But there is something to be said of tacit support. For nearly a year, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did not warn the IHH of the flotilla’s consequences or ask the IHH to stop. This made some Turks skeptical: “The government supports them in an indirect way because the IHH is sharing the same point of view as the government [about Palestine],” said Halil, a recent graduate living in Istanbul.

Weeks before the second flotilla’s departure, Turkey ended its approval. First, Egypt opened the Rafah border in Gaza, allowing greater movement of people and goods. Davutoğlu then asked the IHH to postpone the flotilla until the results from Rafah were clear. The IHH refused. The situation quickly intensified when thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Turkey to escape crackdowns by the Syrian regime. Hoping to avoid a second, distracting quarrel with Israel, Turkey increased pressure on the IHH; this ultimately divided the IHH leadership. On June 17, 2011, President Yıldırım announced that the Mavi Marmara would withdraw from the international flotilla because it needed repairs. It was a poor attempt to save face. In the least, the month-long dispute between the IHH and Turkey confirmed that the IHH attempted to act independently.[i]

Returning to the topic of politics and aid, Oruç said, “You cannot isolate aid and human rights from political problems… Whatever you do on Gaza, one side [supports it while the other] accepts it as political.” Oruç is right that aid missions have dissenters, but IHH tactics carry a very pointed message. When planning the second flotilla, the IHH allowed only one-fifth of the passengers to be Turkish. The rest represented over one hundred nationalities. “Helping Palestine is not the problem of a single nationality; it is the problem of the entire world,” said Oruç.

Even more politically charged was the choice to send flotillas. “We applied to Israeli consulate in Istanbul to send one hundred trucks of the food… and they didn’t reply,” said Oruç. The Israeli consulate claims there was no request, but in either case, the IHH arranged for a boat. Yet it arranged the second flotilla despite movement through the Rafah border. “We want the people of Gaza to live independently. Israel controls all of its resources. When the trees grow, it is Israelis who come and cut them… It is not [Israel’s] right, and it is not acceptable.” The purpose of the flotilla was not aid but protest. The IHH was making an expressly political statement.

Oruç also supports the protest of cultural exchange with Israel. “It is the right of the peoples… Many times Israelis are using all that kinds of things for the politics. If we feel that it is a part of the Israeli politics, of course we can do it.” In May 2011, the Cameri Company, a premier theater troop from Israel, cancelled a performance in Turkey due to threats of protest. Oruç claims the IHH did not organize the protest but grants that supporters of the IHH may have participated. When asked why the IHH did not take part and which supporters likely joined in, Oruç answered, “I don’t know.” But he was clear on one thing. “Of course it was successful. It reflects the Turkish society.”

The IHH is conscious of its strong rhetoric, however. It tries to condemn anti-Semitism and to attack Israel, not the Jews. “[Israel’s crime] is not a crime of the Jewish people,” said Oruç. “But unfortunately the policies of the Israeli government make a good surface for the anti-Semitic movements. It is not easy to understand for the ordinary peoples.”

During a discussion of accusations against the IHH, Oruç remains calm. He finishes a small cup of Turkish tea. “If you want to know us, why you are not asking the Iraqis what IHH is? The people will say to you what we have done for them… You will see our schools; you will see our orphanages; you will see our water wells.” The conversation returns to the IHH’s humanitarian initiatives. For a moment, the eye cataract surgeries in Africa seem a guise: is the IHH using charity to cover up a largely anti-Israel agenda? The answer certainly is no. For years, the IHH has dedicated itself to humanitarian work, which continues today. But the attack on the Mavi Marmara turned a slight political bent into a large one. Now, it seems that the IHH engages frequently in protest and propaganda.

Certain groups have labeled the IHH as fundamentalist, but this is false and misinformed name-calling. “My religion ordered me to work for humanity,” said Oruç, referring to zakat in the Qur’an. He clarified his wish to help non-Muslims and Muslims alike. An example of how Islam informs the IHH is its Qurban campaign, now in its nineteenth year. The IHH seeks donations of livestock during the holiday of Eid al-Adha. Officials slaughter the animals according to Islamic law and then notify the donors via text message. Finally, officials hand-distribute the meat to poor persons across the world. Islam merely is a jumping off point for the IHH. If anything, the IHH’s Islam is spiritual—a desire for human betterment found in most religions. Oruç even has a text on Buddhism in his office bookshelf. Still, the IHH faces greater accusations than fundamentalism.

“We are not a terrorist organization,” said Oruç. As he answers a call on his iPhone, shifting the cuff of his sharp black blazer, it is impossible to disagree with him. But this is part of the organization’s allure. No matter how many links Israeli newspapers claim between the IHH and Hamas, the two organizations never will be alike; the IHH does not look like Hamas, or Al Qaeda for that matter. The caveat is that the IHH has nearly equal power. As an NGO affiliated with the United Nations, it can attract widespread support for its actions. Through nonviolent protests, it can mobilize the Turkish population and the world. Perhaps it can do what terrorists cannot: force Israel to settle with Palestine.[ii]

“What have we done? We are just an NGO,” said Oruç. Just an NGO. And transforming Turkish-Israeli relations is just an afterthought.

Jeffrey Dastin ’14 is in Saybrook College. Contact him at jeffrey.dastin@yale.edu.

[i] Turkey may help the IHH in the event of a third flotilla. When the U.N. declared this September that Israel’s blockade was legal, Turkey again cut relations with Israel and threatened to provide a naval escort of aid ships to Gaza.

[ii] The following article first expounded this idea well: Berlinski, Claire. “A Visit Inside Turkey’s Islamist IHH: A Journalist’s Trip to the Headquarters of the Extremist Group that Sponsored the Mavi Marmara.” The Weekly Standard. http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/visit-turkey-islamist-ihh?page=1