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News Analysis

Clash deepens Israeli isolation

By Karin Laub
Associated Press / June 1, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Israel’s bloody, bungled takeover of a Gaza-bound Turkish aid vessel is complicating US-led Mideast peace efforts, deepening Israel’s international isolation, and threatening to destroy the Jewish state’s ties with a key regional ally, Turkey.

And while Israel had hoped to defend its tight blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza with yesterday’s high-seas raid, it instead appeared to be hastening the embargo’s demise, judging by initial international condemnation.

The predawn commando operation, which killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, was also sure to strengthen Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers at the expense of US allies in the region, key among them Hamas’s main rival, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Egypt and Jordan.

“The attack on a humanitarian mission . . . will only further alienate the international community and isolate Israel while granting added legitimacy to Hamas’s claim to represent the plight of the Palestinian people,’’ said Scott Atran, an analyst at the University of Michigan.

The bloodshed dealt another blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to get peace talks back on track. It also raised new questions about one of the pillars of US policy — that Hamas can be left unattended as Washington tries to broker a peace deal between Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

The raid tested US-Israeli ties that have not fully recovered from their most serious dispute in decades, triggered by Israeli construction plans in disputed East Jerusalem.

In the most immediate fallout, the interception of the six-boat flotilla carrying 10,000 tons of supplies for Gaza trained the global spotlight on the blockade of the territory.

Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza’s borders after Hamas overran the territory in 2007, wresting control from Abbas-loyal forces.

The blockade, under which Israel allows in only essential humanitarian supplies, was intended to squeeze the militants. Instead, it has failed to dislodge Hamas, driven ordinary Gazans deeper into poverty, and emerged as a constant source of friction and instability.

In trying to shake off the blockade, Hamas intensified rocket fire on Israeli border towns, provoking Israel’s three-week military offensive against Gaza 16 months ago.

After the war, the international community remained reluctant to push hard for an end to the blockade, for fear it could prolong the rule of Hamas, branded a terrorist organization by the West.

But after yesterday’s deadly clash, Israel may find itself under growing pressure to at least ease the blockade significantly.

European diplomats yesterday demanded a swift end to the border closure, while US officials said statements would call for greater assistance to the people of Gaza.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

The fate of US-led indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians was uncertain.

Netanyahu canceled a meeting today with President Obama in Washington, and the status of a visit to Washington by Abbas next week was not clear.

The Palestinian leader yesterday denounced Israel’s actions as a “sinful massacre’’ and met with aides to decide on his next move.

Relations between Abbas and Hamas have become increasingly vitriolic, and extending Hamas rule by lifting the blockade would run counter to Abbas’s objectives.

However, public outrage at home might force Abbas’s hand — though pressure on him to quit the talks appeared to be muted by the fact that he is negotiating through a US mediator, not directly with Israeli officials.

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