The Turkish Islamic charity that organized the relief flotilla boarded in a deadly Israeli raid has been both praised for sending aid around the world and accused of supporting radical Islamic groups including Hamas.
The Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, was established in 1995 during the Bosnia war, gradually expanding operations to more than 100 countries.
Its efforts have included taking humanitarian aid such as food and drinking water to Hurricane Katrina survivors in the United States and sponsoring cataract surgery in Africa, spokesman Izzet Sahin said.
Some 400 of the 600 passengers on board the main ship carrying the activists were from Turkey, mostly members of IHH. Most of those killed were Turkish, officials said.
Israeli officials have said the charity is merely a front and that the group has links to al-Qaida and Hamas. Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in a press conference on Monday that "the armada of hate and violence in support of Hamas terror organization was a premeditated and outrageous provocation."
"The organizers are well-known for their ties with global jihad, al-Qaida and Hamas. They have a history of arms smuggling and deadly terror."
Israel's ambassador to Denmark said in a brief interview with Danish broadcaster DR that the humanitarian equipment on the ships was "to disguise the main intention" to break the blockade on the shipments to Gaza.
IHH vehemently denies ties to radical groups. The group is not among some 45 groups listed as terrorists by the US State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. "Our sole aim is charity and taking aid to people in need all over the world, whether they are Muslims or Christians," said Sahin, who was the IHH's representative in the West Bank until his arrest and extradition to Turkey earlier this month.
"We abide by the country's laws whereever we are," he said. The group operates legally in Turkey and the relief flotilla had Turkey's backing. Before the ships set off, Turkish officials said they were in contact with Israeli officials trying to secure the ships' safe passage.
IHH insists the group's aim was to take aid to those suffering in Gaza, not to support Hamas.
"We were there to penetrate the open-air prison that is built on Gaza. By doing that, we were aiming to help the people of Gaza breathe a bit, because they are dying of hunger and lack of medicine in there," said Yavuz Dede, the group's vice-president. "We knew Israel would command an operation on the ships, but we were hoping for a humane approach. Instead, they unleashed an attack of a monstrous scale."
Sahin claimed he was imprisoned for 21 days in Israel for distributing meat of an animal sacrificed under Muslim traditions, to Palestinians.
"In Gaza, a barber can be accused of being a Hamas supporter if he shaves a member of Hamas," he said.