The deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla bringing relief to besieged Gaza has brought the simmering crisis to a dangerous boil. One swift move deprived Israel of a valuable ally, Turkey, and boosted Iran's position in the region while throwing doubt about US President Barack Obama's much heralded new approach to the Islamic world. The crisis also offers opportunity for a fresh beginning in resolving the crisis and turning back from an abyss of desperate violence. The first move should be encouraging formation of a Palestine unity government.
Only a government of national unity representing both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas can tackle the grave humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the dangerous security situation on the Israeli-Palestinian border. The route forward is to deal with root causes of the crisis - lift the siege, end intra-Palestinian quarrels and reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement.
According to Hamas and other Palestinian sources, after two years of bitter division, the warring Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party, came close to agreeing on an Egyptian-brokered deal last October, one that sketched out a path to peace. The pact collapsed at the last moment because of alleged pressure exerted by Americans on Egyptian allies that led Cairo to unilaterally revise the final agreed-upon text and ignore Hamas’ concerns about security and political matters without consulting the Hamas negotiating team.
So far the strategy of isolation and military confrontation with Hamas - pursued in tandem by Israel and the US and, to a lesser extent, the European powers - has not weakened the religiously based movement. Like it or not, despite Washington’s and London’s West Bank-first policy, Hamas is the most powerful organisation in the Palestinian territories. Neither Israel nor the US can wish it away.
If anything, the siege has radicalised hundreds of young Palestinians, who have joined extremist factions of the al-Qaeda variety and now want to wage war against all apostate enemies, including Hamas, Fatah, Israel and the US.
All the while, the economic blockade of Gaza has left a trail of untold human suffering among Gaza's 1.4 million inhabitants, The head of the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) mission in Gaza, John Ging, said the siege has caused mass unemployment (65 per cent, according to Palestinian sources), extreme poverty (85 per cent live below the poverty line), and food shortages that have left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid.
Israel’s flawed strategy only serves to strengthen Hamas politically and the radical forces of “resistance” in general, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Now, the rallying cry among Arabs is that Israel only understands the logic of force and armed resistance, not futile “proximity” talks. Turkey is hailed as a new mehdi, while pro-Western Arab governments like Egypt stand accused of selling out and joining the enemy in blockading Gaza.
Across the Arab world, fallout of the Israeli raid is profound, and hardening public opinion imposes constraints on how governments respond to Washington’s diplomatic and peace initiatives. Conscious of widening criticism of Cairo’s role in enforcing the Gaza embargo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened the Rafah crossing - the only gateway to the Gaza Strip not fully controlled by Israel.
Mubarak’s decision did not satisfy his many critics at home who demand that Egypt, the most populous Arab state, must reclaim its traditional leadership in backing Palestinians and counterbalancing Israel.
Beleaguered by elements within his own Palestinian Authority to suspend proximity talks with Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas, a bitter rival of Hamas, said that reconciliation with Hamas is a priority. Hamas dismissed Abbas’ gesture as public consumption. Relying on Arab support for legitimising its participation in US-mediated peace talks, the Palestinian leadership is pressed between Israel’s destructive unilateral moves and increasing Arab mistrust of peace efforts.
The Israeli raid - followed by detention of the MV Rachel Corrie with humanitarian aid, also trying to break the blockade, and its forcible diversion to the port of Ashdod - shows that the status quo is untenable, that the siege of Gaza has neither resolved Israel’s strategic predicament nor advanced peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians. Playing by its own rules, Israel has isolated itself, undermining its long-term security and mastering the art of making enemies.
For Turkish leadership, Israel’s assault on the flotilla flying Turkey’s flag that left nine citizens dead was the last straw. "The time has come for the international community to say 'enough'," said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in a speech Tuesday.