Catrina Stewart: Passengers on flotilla had al-Qa'ida links, claims Israel

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Israel has accused activists who joined a flotilla bound for the besieged Gaza Strip of having links to terrorist organisations, including al-Qa'ida.

In claims that drew sharp denials from the activist group in question, the Israeli government has alleged that Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), uses its humanitarian missions as a cover for support of terrorist groupings. IHH is a Turkish charity that provided two of the ships and most of the passengers on the flotilla which was stormed by Israeli elite forces earlier this week.

Activists "came to kill and be killed," Yigal Palmor, a foreign ministry spokesman, said yesterday. Israel has received undisclosed intelligence from European police forces implicating IHH in terrorist activity in the past, he said, but did not provide details.

"What is openly known, they have very close ties to Hamas," Mr Palmor said. "[IHH] will say they support resistance but not terrorism. The language of [Hamas] has only one meaning and that's armed resistance."

The claims are part of a sophisticated Israeli government media offensive to present its side of the story in a bid to salvage its shattered international reputation. The raid on the flotilla has brought renewed pressure over Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, in place since the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the enclave three years ago. Human rights organisations accuse Israel of collectively punishing Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinian inhabitants, denying them freedom of movement and sometimes medical care.

Israel insists that Hamas is a terrorist organisation dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State.

Earlier, Israel's ambassador to Denmark, Arthur Avnon said "rumour had it" that IHH had links to al-Qa'ida's terror network, prompting the violent dawn raid, DR, Denmark's public broadcaster, reported.

IHH, an Islamic charity with offices in Istanbul, was initially set up to help Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990s, and its aid projects were quickly extended to Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. It insists its missions are peaceful, although its offices were raided by Turkish authorities in the late 1990s.

The Israelis "are caught in a trap", said Omar Faruk Korkmaz, a director of IHH, who strongly denied the claimed link to terrorist groups. "They are trying to accuse others to save themselves."

Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow at the UK's Royal Institute for International Affairs, said that IHH has the support of elements within the Turkish government but is viewed with deep suspicion by secular Turks. He said he was not aware that it funded terrorist bodies.

"There is an ideological kinship, cultural linkage [with Hamas] and also sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians," Mr Hakura said. "That does not mean they support any violent campaign."

It was thanks to IHH's financial backing that the Free Gaza Movement, which has sent several ships in the past to Gaza, was given fresh impetus. Greta Berlin, the founder of the pro-Palestinian organisation, scraped by on tiny donations when she first started the enterprise, gathering together just enough to buy two broken-down fishing boats.

"Everyone thought we were crazy," she said yesterday. But as the first boats were allowed in to deliver aid, the donations flooded in. Israel stopped allowing boats in after Operation Cast Lead, its 22-day military offensive on Gaza launched at the end of 2008, prompting organisers to raise a fleet that would attract more attention.

Hundreds of activists joined the ships. The protesters insist they were unarmed and peaceful, although isolated video clips of the incident provided by Israel shows passengers aboard the Mavi Mamara ship attacking soldiers with sticks and iron bars.

"We do have the right to self defence," said Ms Berlin. "The only guns on board those boats belonged to Israel... The claims Israel throws around makes the word 'terrorism' sound cheap."

Another ship, the Rachel Corrie, is headed for Gaza but was expected to berth in Crete last night while organisers decided whether to continue amid concerns that the ship's arrival could detract from the plight of Arab Israeli protesters in detention. It is expected to arrive off Gaza, if it gets through, next week. The Save Gaza organisation said that it planned to send an even bigger flotilla to Gaza "within weeks".