GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The Turkish group that bankrolled the aid flotilla raided by Israel says it has big plans for Gaza, and its bearded 50-year-old leader has assumed hero status in the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Mehmet Kaya, who says his group plans to spend $25 million on housing, medical care, and education, has been treated like a star wherever he goes since Monday's deadly raid. Gazans young and old gather to shake his hand, and he enjoys ready access to leaders of the territory's ruling Islamic 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 on Wednesday at Gaza's dilapidated port.
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.
But as Kaya's group, known by its Turkish acronym, IHH, has shot to attention, so have Israeli accusations that it supports terrorism. Israel has been trying to defuse widespread international anger over the sea raid, arguing that its troops had come under premeditated attack and fired in self-defense.
"The IHH is . . . known as a group implicated in terrorist operations," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. "Their close ties with Hamas are an avowed policy of this group."
The IHH's website shows its founder warmly embracing Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Syria. Most Western countries classify Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, as a terrorist group.
The Turkish activists vehemently deny that they support terrorism, saying they are 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 IHH, whose name in English means Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief.
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 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.
Israeli-Turkish ties had already shown signs of strains. Erdogan was an outspoken critic of Israel's war in Gaza last year and, in one high-profile incident, stormed off a stage he was sharing with Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos, Switzerland, in the days after the war.
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 officials repeatedly urged Turkey to call off the flotilla - a request that was rebuffed in Ankara.
The IHH insists it has no ties to Turkey's Islamic-leaning government, though its top fund-raisers are believed to be among Erdogan's core support group, the country's wealthy merchant class.
The IHH is renovating Gaza's port, funding a Turkish-Palestinian school, and plans to build a hospital and apartments for Gazans made homeless during the war with Israel. It also supports 9,000 families with money and food parcels, Kaya said.
Israel imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power in Gaza and stepped up rocket fire into Israel.
The United Nations, which was to lead reconstruction efforts after the Gaza war ended, has been paralyzed because Israel does not allow in building materials. Groups like the IHH have filled the void because they can use black-market goods and - unlike the international agencies - are under no obligation to stay away from Hamas.
Israel's Shin Bet security service says the IHH is a major player in raising funds for Hamas. And Reuven Erlich, head of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israeli think tank with close ties to Israel's Defense Ministry, said the group "in the past provided at least logistical support to Islamic jihad organizations," including funds and arms.
Despite such assertions, the IHH, unlike Hamas, is not among about 45 groups listed by the U.S. State Department as terror organizations.
IHH board member Omer Faruk Korkmaz said Wednesday that his group was strictly involved in delivering aid. He said, "We don't approve of the actions of any terrorist organization in the world."