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.
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