Turkish flotilla group Gaza's new heroes

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Turkish group that bankrolled the aid flotilla raided by Israel has big plans for Gaza.

Its 50-year-old leader has assumed hero status in the impoverished Palestinian territory, where he says his group plans to spend $25 million on housing, medical care and education.

Mehmet Kaya has been treated like a star wherever he goes since the deadly raid on Monday. Gazans young and old gather to shake his hand, and he enjoys ready access to leaders of the territory's ruling Islamic militant group Hamas.

"The Arab countries that are a part of us haven't done what Turkey did," said Jihan Balousha, 30, who brought her five children to meet Kaya at Gaza's dilapidated port Wednesday.

It's all part of Turkey's muscular push into the blockaded Gaza Strip and its growing ambition to be an influential player in the Middle East.

Israel accuses Kaya's group, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, of supporting terrorism. The Turkish activists vehemently deny that, saying they're strictly involved in humanitarian efforts and have to deal with Hamas, since it is the authority in Gaza.

"We have found that the support, when it goes through the Hamas government... it goes to the people," said Kaya, the Gaza representative for the group, whose name in English means Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief.

Kaya has gained new prominence since the six-ship flotilla tried to challenge Israel's 3-year-old blockade of Gaza. The attempt ended with Israeli commandos commandeering the boats and clashing with club-wielding passengers on one vessel in a confrontation that left eight Turks and an American dead.

Seen as a kind of unofficial ambassador to Gaza, Kaya symbolizes Turkey's dramatic shift toward Hamas' key patrons Iran and Syria, at the expense of its traditional alliance with Israel.

Ties had been warming gradually, but the sea raid pushed the fledgling partnership out into the open as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed against Israel, accusing it of committing a massacre on the high seas.

Turkey's government unofficially sponsored the flotilla, which was transporting 10,000 tons of aid and hundreds of activists. In the weeks before the operation, Israeli military and diplomatic officials repeatedly urged Turkey to call off the flotilla — a request that was rebuffed in Ankara.