The Flotilla Indirectly Altered the Middle East Balance of Strength
A funny thing happened to Gaza's Hamas rulers this week. Israel's commando raid on the Turkish Mavi Marmara on May 31 prevented the flotilla it led from docking at Gaza Port, but it also generated a new, unforeseen reality which placed their armed offensive and Israel's strategic maneuverability on a completely new footing.
If Israel saw its friends disappearing (see separate article in this issue), Hamas found new champions in unexpected places, who presented him with great new opportunities on a platter:
1. Military action for vanquishing the Jewish state suddenly looked superfluous. Hamas' missiles and rockets may continue to terrorize Israel's southwestern towns and villages in the months or years to come, but they will never generate the astounding benefits dropped in the extremist Palestinian movement's laps this week, without their lifting a finger. All they had to do was to hang out welcoming flags for the flotilla's Free Gaza sympathizers across the Gaza Strip. Even though the ships did not reach Gaza, the effect they created was just as good and cause for celebration.
2. This perceived success has placed Israel and Egypt and their siege of Gaza on the defensive.
Egypt read the omens first and announced on Tuesday, June 1, the reopening the territory's Sinai border crossing for several days. Cairo may find it hard in the political and military climate prevailing in the Middle East to restore its tight restrictions on traffic through Sinai into Gaza.
Israel too finds its naval blockade seriously challenged by the Turkish-initiated flotilla expedition.
The lifting of Egyptian restrictions opens the Rafah route to the import of non-military goods, allowing Gaza's smuggling tunnels to revert exclusively to the illicit traffic of weaponry for the Hamas and their fellow extremists. This is a windfall they never believed possible in the circumstances prior to the flotilla episode; it is a serious setback for Israel's efforts to defend its southwestern population against missile and terrorist assaults.
3. Three years after seizing power in the Gaza Strip in a coup against Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority, Hamas leaders see their moderate rivals as a spent force with nothing to show for their acceptance of US patronage in terms of political gains for the Palestinian people and Israeli concessions.
In the eyes of Hamas, the nascent radical camp led by Iran, Syria and Turkey used its baptism of fire this week as the platform for an astoundingly successful propaganda campaign generating support from the West as well as the Muslim world for the Palestinian extremists, and pressure for Israel to end its embargo of the Gaza Strip – unconditionally. The surging radical propaganda has drowned out demands for Hamas to recognize Israel, abandon violence and free its hostage, Gilead Shalit.
Gaza's rulers are convinced more than ever before that going along with the new radical camp pays the richest dividends and will soon catapult them into the seat of West Bank government in Ramallah in place of the Abbas-Fayad regime – without firing a shot.
Hamas looks forward to the bidding between Ankara and Tehran
The Palestinian Hamas, like the Lebanese Hizballah, found confirmation in this latest incident that, withal its military and technological prowess, Israel never manages to bring its military campaigns against radical Islamist foes to a final victory – or even completion. Israel's generals are invariably ordered by the politicians, whether in Jerusalem or Washington, to hold their horses in mid-course and wait for international diplomacy to kick on. The result more often than not sends Israeli troops falling back to the starting line.
The retilting of the Middle East balance of strength is perceived by Hamas as presenting it with fresh choices of sponsors.
Which radical Islamic power best suits its interests? Stick with Tehran, its chief supplier of military hardware, and training, or strike out in a new direction by sending its leaders on their first trips to Ankara?
Their decision can wait. Tehran and Ankara are not yet vying for the lead-position in their new radical Islamic bloc or bidding for support from inside their camp. For the present, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is grateful to the flotilla episode for diverting Western attention from his nuclear program and happy to walk hand in hand with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
But in Gaza and Damascus, there is awareness that this idyll may be short-lived. Once the United States and Israel are shunted to the sidelines, Ankara and Tehran will challenge each other for the top spot in the Middle East leadership stakes and the prerogative for dictating its agenda.