Snap Analysis: Clash at sea is Hamas lifeline

JERUSALEM Mon May 31, 2010 6:36am EDT

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's storming of an aid flotilla bound for the blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday is likely to increase pressure on the Jewish state to ease its siege, throwing a lifeline to Islamist Hamas which controls the territory.

The violence of the naval interdiction deepened doubt about the future of indirect, U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians that began three weeks ago.

With at least 10 activists killed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could face a backlash of unprecedented proportions: the "Free Gaza" convoy included volunteers from regional powerbroker Turkey and other foreigners.

There could also be trouble closer to home, where a restive Israeli Arab minority awaited word of the fate of one of its clerics, Sheikh Raed Salah, who was reported among casualties.

For Israel, storming the ships after they ignored warnings to turn back was part of a strategy of isolating Hamas in its Gaza fiefdom in the hope of tilting Palestinian sympathies toward Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas.

But Abbas's credibility has been undermined by Israeli settlement of the occupied West Bank, another territory where Palestinians want statehood, and he can ill afford to stand by as outsiders bleed on behalf of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians.

Similarly challenged will be U.S. President Barack Obama, who plans to host Netanyahu in the White House on Tuesday. Those talks have been cast as a chance to mend testy bilateral ties but Obama, whose administration had urged Israel to ease the Gaza embargo, will be hard put to avoid comment on the flotilla.

Oussama Safa of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies predicted Obama might "ante up the pressure against the Israelis" to accommodate Abbas, who branded the deaths a "massacre" and called for three days of Palestinian mourning.

HEROES, FOR HAMAS

Hamas, which has largely fallen from world headlines since its war with Israel some 18 months ago, welcomed what it described as a win-win situation from the standoff at sea.

Hamas government head Ismail Haniyeh said of the activists: "You were heroes, whether you reached (Gaza) or not."

Another delay in peace negotiations that have been stop-start for almost two decades would hold little real drama. Abbas, with his truncated West Bank mandate, is too beholden to Israel and the United States to close the door on rapprochement.

But the possibility of a fissure with Turkey -- long Israel's most important Muslim ally but whose pro-Islamist premier, Tayyip Erdogan, has chafed at the alliance -- could deepen Israel's own isolation even as it tries to persuade wavering Arab countries that Iran is the main regional threat.

Monday's bloodshed overshadowed a fence-mending visit by Israeli cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to Qatar, among Gulf states that had frozen ties with Israel over its crackdowns against a Palestinian uprising that erupted a decade ago.

As then, hard questions will be asked about the wisdom of using the military -- in this case, battle-hardened naval commandos -- for what was essentially a policing operation. Israeli officials insisted their troops acted in self-defense.

"I see all the looks that I'm getting. The images (of the naval takeover) are certainly not pleasant," Ben-Eliezer told Israel's Army Radio by telephone.

Nahman Shai, a former Israeli military spokesman turned opposition lawmaker, likened the confrontation to the police killing of a dozen Arab citizens who demonstrated and rioted in solidarity with the Palestinians in late 2000.

"The difference is that this time foreigners are involved, which means a much wider impact," Shai told Israel Radio.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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Comments (4)
Starfire wrote:
What a set-up! The protesters knew there was a legitimate naval blockade of Gaza and under the cover of delivering aid supplies they set out to break that naval blockade. Any country would find that unacceptable if it happened to them.

The Israeli government made it clear to the activists that if they were sincere in delivering aid supplies to Gaza, then they could either take them to the Israeli port of Ashdod for transshipment, or to Egypt for the same. One of the other, Israel or Egypt.

When the flotilla refused to deliver the aid supplies to Gaza via Egypt or Israel, it became even more obvious that the true intent was to open Gaza not only to direct shipment of aid but also to direct shipment of military weapons and hardware – the true reason for the flotilla.

Despite warnings that the ships would be boarded, they continued on their merry way. When the Israeli commandos did board the ships, they were physically attacked by activists with clubs and guns, and many Israeli commandos were seriously wounded. About ten activists were killed as a result of the violence they, not the Israeli’s, started.

So who is at fault here? To my mind, those activists who tried to break the military blockade and put Israel into a no-win public relations disaster were at fault, but also won what the victory they had been seeking. Now Israel is being blamed for protecting itself. Go figure.

The fact that the pro-Islamic militant government of Turkey is supporting the efforts of those of its citizens who support an internationally-recognized terrorists organization – Hamas – is worrisome indeed.

Is Turkey now a country that supports international terrorism?

May 31, 2010 10:05am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Klearchos wrote:
Israeli troops action took place on International waters which means that it is an act of Piracy!

Israel newspaper Haaretz: “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege, which is itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam”

May 31, 2010 10:58am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Poalima wrote:
What most people fail to realize is that Israel does not want the conflict with Hamas, or other Palestinians, to end, short of their complete eviction from the land that Israel wants. Peace would mean the Jews would not get to occupy and settle all their historic boundaries.

May 31, 2010 11:11am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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