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6.3.2010 Israeli strike echoes in Pakistan

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - Over the past few years the Palestinian issue, which has seen the rise of the fundamentalist Hamas in Gaza, has in many respects been downgraded from an international conflict into a complex local issue.

Israel’s deadly attack on Monday on an unarmed Turkish aid ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza has overnight changed this, sparking protest rallies across the Muslim world. Even the biggest facilitator of the Gaza siege, Israel's ally Egypt, reacting to the protests, opened the Rafah border crossing into Gaza.

The incident has also turned the spotlight on the United States, which ultimately might be the major loser, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hundreds of members of a pro-Iran Islamist group, the Imamia Students' Organization, marched through the streets of Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi on Tuesday in protest against the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara. The protest was just one of several hundred staged in other parts of the country.

The rally was supposed to take place in front of the Karachi Press Club. As the protesters made their way to the club a group of men suddenly started shouting inflammatory slogans. These included "La Sharqia La Gharbia Islamiya, Islamiya" (We neither believe in East nor in the West, we only believe in Islam), "Death to America, death to Israel" and "Allies of the Americans and Israel are traitors."

At this point the marchers veered off towards the United States consulate and the protest turned violent as police tried to block the march. At least two dozen student activists were arrested and the remainder dispersed by water cannons.

In Pakistani terms this was a relatively small incident with no deaths, but it is a sign of a fresh anti-American campaign in the country that could easily be replicated in other nations.

The heightened temperature on the streets in Pakistan could not have come at a worse time.

The government is under intense pressure from Washington to launch a massive military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area, which the US recognizes as the crucial base for the Afghan resistance and the global headquarters of al-Qaeda. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops in Afghanistan are also poised for a big offensive against Taliban strongholds in Kandahar province - a move that is highly unpopular with the local population.

Even though Pakistan is termed a most important non-NATO ally in the war in Afghanistan, Islamabad does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Three Pakistani citizens were on the Mavi Marmara and the incident, including Turkey's unequivocal condemnation of the attack, received widespread media coverage.

International Islamic movements immediately showed up on the streets and formulated plans for demonstrations, including the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, which after a high-level meeting in Lahore outlined a prolonged protest campaign.

Former Afghan interim prime minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai told Asia Times Online from Kabul that sustained protests could also break out in Afghanistan.

The Kandahar offensive, which was supposed to have been launched before April, is further delayed pending the fate of the operation in North Waziristan, first promised by the Pakistan army last year.

Meanwhile, the Taliban's Operation Fateh (Operation Victory) is on schedule, having begun last month with the attack on a NATO convey in Kabul in which several senior officials were killed, followed by an attack on the massive Bagram air base outside Kabul and one on Kandahar air field.

There have also been pitched battles at Logar air base and deadly assaults in Helmand, Farah and Kuduz. The Taliban captured the only pro-government district of Barge Matal in Nuristan province, including all government buildings. On Tuesday, NATO forces recaptured the district headquarters, but the Taliban still control the mountains and the nearby villages.

The level of the insurgency is expected to increase during the summer months. In short, it is vital for NATO to dismember the Taliban's central command structures - the branch that controls the southeastern Afghan insurgency that is based in North Waziristan, and the southwestern branch based in Kandahar province.

Now, with anti-Israeli and anti-US sentiment at a five-year high, mustering political support behind a pro-American operation in North Waziristan and a Kandahar offensive, already heavily opposed by local tribes, seems impossible. Any delay benefits the Taliban's Operation Fateh - which already has key strategic border towns in Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Kunar and Nangarhar in its sights.

If the offensives do get off the ground, they will certainly stir already inflamed passions and further radicalize youth in Pakistan and Afghanistan - and there is no guarantee of their success.