First published in the Jerusalem Post - 01/06/2010
There are several strategic aspects involved in the May 31 botched attempt by the flotilla to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip.
Hamas is interested in having free access to the Gaza harbor because it needs to give the Palestinian population the economic benefits it promised when it took control of the Strip in June 2007 in a bloody military coup. It also needs construction materials for rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, which was triggered by Hamas rocket attacks.
But above all, Hamas wants to arm itself with long-range missiles and other weapons to attack Israel again.
In this, it resembles Hizbullah. Since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, not only has Hizbullah not been disarmed, as required by Security Council Resolution 1701, it has rearmed with more than 40,000 missiles and rockets, and is now able to hit all of Israel. Further, the organization has practically hijacked the Lebanese government and imposed on it (with Syrian, Iranian and Qatari support) its so-called “resistance” strategy against Israel.
Neither the UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon, nor the German navy nor EUROMARFOR – a force made up of ships from Portugal, Spain, Italy and France – managed to fulfill their UN task of preventing the smuggling of illegal armaments to Hizbullah, as long as the Syrian border was uncontrolled and Iran and Syria were dedicated to supporting the Islamist organization.
Israel cannot permit a Hizbullah-like entity on its southern border, 60 km from its heavily populated central region. So the navy and army thwarted attempts to give Hamas a free hand in arming itself to the teeth.
The international organizers of the “humanitarian aid” flotilla are a hodgepodge of pro-Palestinian human rights groups, naïve intellectuals and some anti-Zionist Jews. But the real agents behind this operation were several Hamas front organizations, and especially the Turkish IHH (humanitarian relief fund) – a radical Islamic organization close to the Muslim Brotherhood. IHH supports the Hamas strategy of armed struggle, and was outlawed by Israel in 2008.
From its point of view, the flotilla operation was a huge success, in spite of (or, better said, because of) the “martyrdom” of its militants.
This is why the Islamic Movement in Israel, represented in the flotilla by Sheikh Raed Salah, spread false information about Salah’s serious injury or even death, triggering violence among Arab Israelis.
The Islamic Movement is actually a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, which with Hamas was in large part responsible for the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000, thanks to the false reports of the “imminent” destruction of the Aksa Mosque by the Jews.
Although only some of its militants have been involved in terrorist activities, one must remember that Hamas was a “pacifist” movement from 1967 to 1987, during which it prepared its religious, social and military infrastructure for armed struggle.
TURKEY, THE AKP (Justice and Development Party) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are new players in this drama.
In its second term the AKP, the self-styled “conservative” Islamist party, has retreated significantly from its “moderate” image and accelerated its internal anti-secularism agenda.
One of the signs of this Islamization process has been the manifest anti-Israeli policy of the Erdogan government. It began with an official visit of the Hamas leadership in Turkey in February 2006, continued with Erdogan’s attack on President Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos Conference, the downgrading of military cooperation between the two allied countries and a continuous diplomatic crisis.
The AKP and its leaders feel close to Hamas, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. In January, under strong Turkish diplomatic pressure, Egypt permitted pro-Palestinian activists, mainly Turks, to enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border with a humanitarian aid convoy led by British parliamentarian George Galloway. The long standoff culminated in clashes at the border, the death of an Egyptian soldier and the expulsion from Egypt of most of the activists.
In spite of Israel’s diplomatic attempts to convince the Turkish government to transport the present humanitarian aid convoy to Gaza through the Israeli border, the Turkish leaders preferred to support the provocative flotilla.
It seems the Turkish government was interested in ending the Gaza blockade and Hamas’ international isolation, recognizing its bid for leadership of the Palestinians, its growing influence in the Arab world and strategic rapprochement with Syria and Iran.
The Palestinian issue is an important card on the Turkish internal arena: It is a populist flag for the Islamist masses against the background of a continuing recession and the recent rise of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), according to recent polls.
THE CYNICAL use of this issue by Erdogan and AKP stands in contrast with the Turkish policy on the Kurdish problem. Erdogan failed to achieve any agreement with the PKK and its leader Abdullah Ocalan, who abandoned efforts for dialogue. On May 20, Turkish planes bombed dozens of Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq, and on May 31 the PKK retaliated with a rocket attack against a naval base which left seven soldiers dead.
The AKP’s government concern with the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza is difficult to understand, as is Erdogan’s claim that “a Muslim can never commit genocide” while hosting and defending Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who faces worldwide condemnation for the genocide in Darfur.
By the way, what was the reaction of the Turkish government to the May 28 attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, Pakistan, where at least 93 worshipers were slaughtered and more than 100 wounded?
No Muslim country protested the massacre, and no country dared ask for a Security Council urgent meeting.
It is expected that the Turkish government will expel the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and downgrade diplomatic relations or even to cut them off in light of the flotilla “massacre.”
*The writer is Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel.