Israeli Flotilla Raid Raises Tensions Over Gaza

More regional players, including Iran, get involved.

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When Turkish activists organized a flotilla of six aid ships to test the Israeli blockade of Gaza last week, they sought to provoke a response from the Jewish state and draw international attention to the plight of Palestinians living in the coastal territory. In that, they succeeded. Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters to the deck of one of the ships and, during clashes with activists, killed nine people, including one American citizen shot four times in the head. The flotilla was in international waters at the time.

The fight over the blockade has pulled in more regional players, including Iran, which announced this week that it was sending aid ships to challenge the Israeli blockade and offered, though there were no takers, to have Iranian warships escort other blockade runners. Meanwhile, in the wake of nearly unanimous international condemnation, Israel relaxed the three-year ban on some foodstuffs entering Gaza on Wednesday,while Egypt also relaxed its restrictions on entering the Hamas-controlled area.

The blockade controversy has complicated Washington's strained relationship with the Israeli government and its broader efforts to build bridges with the Muslim world, Turkey in particular. The incident forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel a visit to the White House, in what many had expected would be a fence-mending trip after a public row this spring over new Jewish housing in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem. And it was a second blow for Turkish-American relations. Last month, the United States spurned as inadequate a deal, crafted in part by Turkey, to help resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff. U.S. diplomats worked overtime this week to allay Turkey's anger over the flotilla incident, while preserving its support for actions against Iran.

The raid and resulting international outcry have shown that the Gaza blockade may now be creating as many problems as it solves. Some 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007, when radical Hamas, which won parliamentary elections there in 2006, violently seized control. In response to rocket fire into southern Israeli towns, Israel and Egypt have maintained a land and sea blockade of the territory to obstruct weapons imports and in hopes of turning residents against Hamas. While Israel insists that there is "no humanitarian crisis" in the territory, international aid groups call the conditions deplorable.

While Washington and many in the international community have supported Israel's policy toward Gaza in the past, that support appears to be waning. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Gaza "unsustainable and unacceptable." Vice President Joe Biden said this week that while Israel's tactics could be argued, its basic right to prevent contraband from reaching Hamas was unassailable. Washington said last week that it had warned Israel about the convoy and "emphasized caution and restraint given the anticipated presence of civilians, including American citizens," a State Department spokesman said.

International condemnation of the raid was swift, sustained, and nearly universal, with the exception of Washington, which offered only a mild rebuke and urged other nations to await the results of an investigation before assigning blame. Several nations, including Turkey, have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel. "What has happened is completely unacceptable," British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament last week.

Mideast expert Robert Malley, of the International Crisis Group, calls the incident at sea a "symptom" of a larger problem and evidence that the strategy of isolating Hamas by blockading Gaza must change. Meanwhile, another flotilla of aid ships is headed for the region and could encounter the blockade as early as next week.