CAIRO – Israel’s deadly assault on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last month has led to mounting international pressure to end the ongoing Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip. The incident, say local analysts, has also served to bolster the position of Palestinian resistance group Hamas, which has governed the strip since 2007.
"Israel’s murderous assault has swung the balance in favor of the Hamas-led resistance in Gaza," Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and editor-in-chief of opposition weekly Al-Karama told IPS. "This Mediterranean Intifada will be remembered as a turning point in the history of the Palestinian cause."
On May 31, Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship bringing humanitarian aid supplies to the Hamas-run coastal enclave, killing nine Turkish activists.
Most western governments refrained from issuing outright condemnation of the attack, which took place in international waters. Nevertheless, the incident sparked widespread public outrage, triggering angry protests around the world.
The very next day, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak abruptly announced that the Rafah terminal — Egypt’s sole border crossing with the Gaza Strip — would be opened to humanitarian aid "until further notice."
Hitherto, Egypt had refused to open the crossing unless Hamas first signed on to an Egypt-proposed "reconciliation" agreement with the U.S.-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Before the flotilla massacre, Egypt — Israel’s chief regional ally — had kept Rafah closed for the most part," said Kandil. "But immediately afterwards, in an effort to shield itself from the rising storm of international outrage, it suddenly changed its position."
Israel sealed its six border crossings with the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s landslide victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, won on a platform of armed resistance. One year later, after the group seized control of the enclave from its Fatah rivals in a pre-emptive coup, Egypt followed suit, closing Rafah to both people and goods.
The de facto siege served to hermetically seal off the strip, depriving its roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of desperately needed basic goods, including food, medicine and fuel. Israel’s 22-day ‘Cast Lead’ assault on the besieged territory in late 2008/early 2009, which killed over 1,400 Palestinians and leveled much of the strip’s infrastructure, exacerbated the already dire humanitarian situation.
Late last year, Egypt began building a subterranean barrier along its 14- kilometer border with the Gaza Strip, on the pretext of halting arms smuggling between the enclave and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The U.S.- endorsed project aims to choke the underground tunnels that represent Gaza’s last remaining lifeline to the outside world.
Israel — along with the U.S., Egypt and Fatah — had initially hoped that the siege would either move Gaza’s public to overthrow the elected Hamas leadership, or coerce the resistance group into signing Egypt’s "reconciliation" document. The document stipulates that Hamas acknowledge Israel and abandon armed resistance.
Until now, Hamas has steadfastly refused to sign the agreement, despite steadily mounting pressure to do so by the Egyptian government.
"Hamas infuriated Egypt with its refusal to sign, charging that the document’s terms favored Fatah," Tarek Fahmi, head of the Israel department at the Cairo-based National Center for Middle East Studies, told IPS. "In fact, in the weeks leading up to the flotilla attack, Egypt had cut official contact with the group and refused to welcome its leaders in Cairo."
Fatah, for its part, signed the agreement last October. Known for engaging in close military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, the Fatah-led PA insists on pursuing a discredited "peace process" with Israel, which has failed to stop continued Israeli settlement building on occupied Palestinian land.
Since Mubarak’s Jun. 1 announcement, Egypt has allowed limited numbers of people and some medical supplies to cross the border through Rafah. But it continues to insist that most goods enter the Gaza Strip via the Israeli- controlled Al-Auja and Kerem Abu Saalim border crossings.
Nevertheless, local analysts say the gesture signals a victory for Hamas.
"The blockade’s primary objective had been to end Hamas leadership in Gaza through collective punishment," says Kandil. "It was meant to send a message to the Palestinian people that their choice of resistance — in the form of Hamas — would result in severe hardships on the entire population." But now the international community, not Hamas, has had to change position, he said.
In another indication of Hamas’s reinvigorated standing, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa visited Gaza Jun. 13. He met with Hamas leaders to discuss inter-Palestinian reconciliation and the need to lift the blockade. Since the outset of the siege, Moussa had declined repeated invitations from Hamas officials to visit the beleaguered territory.
"For the last four years, Moussa — along with the rest of the League — had been passive observers while the siege took its devastating toll on the people of Gaza," said Kandil. "But following Israel’s latest massacre, Moussa ran to the strip and began hinting about possible amendments to the reconciliation proposal."
Only five days after the attack, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Hamas as "resistance fighters struggling to defend their land," pointing out that the group "had won an election." Most influential western nations — including the U.S. and European states — continue to classify Hamas as a "terrorist" organization.
But despite questions of Israeli and Egyptian sincerity about easing the blockade, some local analysts believe policymakers in Cairo now have little choice but to recognize Hamas’s authority in Gaza — whether or not the group signs the agreement with Fatah.
(Inter Press Service)