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6.7.2010 Israel's Voyage into Isolation

By Spiegel Staff

After last Monday's raid on a flotilla of peace activists heading toward the Gaza Strip, Israel finds itself on the defensive. Not only has Turkey turned its back on the country, but the US too is angered by the unilateralism of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In the port of Gaza City, Hamas had set up a tent, brightly adorned with Turkish flags. The intention was to welcome the roughly 700 foreign peace activists on board six ships who had planned on breaking through Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip for the first time since the war one-and-a-half years ago. But now it was just the senior leadership of Hamas waiting at the site, gazing out at the horizon.

Somewhere out there, elite forces of the Israeli navy boarded the Mavi Marmara, a ship flying under the flag of the Comoros, shortly after 4 a.m. last Monday morning.

According to the Israelis, passengers on the upper deck wielding sticks and knives attacked the soldiers in the "Shayetet 13" unit, who had rappelled onto the decks of the ships from helicopters hovering overhead. The Palestinians, however, say that the soldiers shot without warning at peaceful activists. The only aspect of the case that is undisputed is that nine activists were killed.

But the men from Hamas standing at the port of Gaza weren't looking particularly mournful. In fact, the incident couldn't have been more advantageous for the rulers of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. More ships, they said, will soon begin testing the blockade, a threat which appeared all the more credible over the weekend after Israeli troops boarded the Rachel Corrie, a freighter which was originally intended to have been part of last week's convoy, on Saturday afternoon. Like the first raid, the boarding of the Rachel Corrie took place in international waters, but this time, no one was hurt.

Hamas says more ships are on their way, from Turkey, Ireland, Bahrain, Kuwait and Algeria -- altogether two or even three times as many ships as participated in last Monday's effort.

Victims in the Gaza Strip

"After the attack on the Mavi Marmara, we are now trying to fight Israel with the media instead missiles," says Mohammed Abu Ensura, whose nom de guerre is Abu Radwan, of the Popular Resistance Committees, an institution which has frequently been associated with armed attacks on Israel in the past. Hamas has decided to hold back, he says. "We want the world to perceive the people of Gaza as victims."

With each passing day last week, it became increasingly clear that the plan was working. Rarely has there been so much international outrage toward Israel. Tehran and Damascus, as expected, voiced their typical fury, but this time Israel's allies in the Middle East also took their distance. Turkey, which lost the largest number of citizens on the Mavi Marmara, accused Israel of "piracy" and "banditry." Egypt opened its border to the Gaza Strip, thereby abandoning the blockade policy it had pursued together with Israel.

At the summit between Russia and the European Union, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton called for an immediate end to the Gaza blockade, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Israel's policy "unjust," and even the Chinese leadership, which normally keeps itself out of the Middle East conflict, said it was "shocked by Israel's attack."

The strike, in short, was a disaster, irrespective of exactly how it played out. While some critics remained relatively diplomatic, merely ruffling the Israelis for their "immoderate" approach, others were more direct. The influential German weekly Die Zeit described Israel as a "country that is increasingly acting as if it were in a separate moral world, pressured by the feeling of being alone and, as a result, believing itself to be empowered to commit arbitrary attacks."

Last Monday's tragedy demonstrated two things: that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated politically; and that sealing off the Gaza Strip is as inefficient as it is pointless.

'Unpredictable Dimensions'

The question remains as to where the commotion over the Gaza flotilla will lead. No one is sure whether Israel may now review the efficacy of the blockade, though the weekend boarding of the Rachel Corrie seems to indicate otherwise. So too does the Monday report that Israel had shot and killed four Palestinians in diving equipment off the coast of the Gaza Strip. Hamas, too, seems unlikely to back down, now that it has the ear of the world. "The mechanism of violence and retaliation, the cycle of hate and revenge," says Israeli author David Grossman, has "entered a new round of unpredictable dimensions."

Even those who have long exercised patience in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's unilateralism are beginning to show signs of exasperation. US President Barack Obama has called for a thorough investigation, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in an unusually harsh tone, demanded international participation in the investigations.

The diplomatic damage is immense. The world had just breathed a sigh of relief after the Palestinians had finally agreed to indirect peace talks, but now the prospects of success are slim once again. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must now take a tough approach toward Israel to avoid losing face in the eyes of his people.

The attack off the Israeli coast also diminishes the prospects of sharper sanctions against Iran. The United States, which had hoped to achieve a unanimous resolution by all 15 members of the UN Security Council, had to postpone the debate when Ankara announced its opposition to new sanctions.

'Nothing Is as It Was'

The fury of an entire region is now being concentrated in Turkey. With rare unanimity, Turkish politicians from the left and right joined the country's Islamist party in calling for retaliation. "From this day forward, nothing is as it was," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech to members of his party.

A look back at history underscores the adverse diplomatic consequences of the incident. Turkey was the first majority Muslim nation to recognize Israel after its independence in 1948. What began as a partnership of convenience in the Cold War became a strategic alliance in the mid-1990s. Israeli fighter pilots trained over Anatolia and the Turks received Israeli military technology.

However, Prime Minister Erdogan was finding it increasingly difficult to justify Ankara's closeness to the "Zionist state" to his conservative Muslim voters, particularly as the Israelis repeatedly provoked their ally. Ankara hasn't forgotten that Israeli soldiers marched into the Gaza Strip at the end of 2008, even as Turkey was still brokering peace talks between Israel and Syria. Since then, Erdogan hasn't missed an opportunity to sharply criticize the Israelis.

"Turkey's hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable," Erdogan said last week in an unmistakably threatening tone.

Jerusalem, however, blames Turkey for the escalation off the Gaza coast. After all, it says, the Turkish charity IHH, which organized the flotilla, has ties to global jihad. If Israel had allowed the flotilla to pass through the blockade, says Netanyahu, Gaza would have been turned into an "Iranian port" for "hundreds of ships carrying missiles."

Netanyahu's words were as exaggerated as they were incorrect. The activists had no weapons on board, and allowing them to reach Gaza would not have posed a threat to Israel. Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, allowed such ships to pass through the blockade several times. And there were also alternatives. For example, the Israeli navy could have destroyed the ships' propellers, says Swedish author Henning Mankell, who was on board the pro-Gaza flotilla.

Part 2: A Burden for the United States

In Israel, only a few members of the left criticized the military operation. Even opposition leader Zipi Livni assured Netanyahu of her support. Israeli politicians have responded defiantly to the international outrage.

There is also no lack of cynicism in Israel, particularly with regard to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In an e-mail he sent to all correspondents accredited in Israel two weeks ago, Daniel Seaman, the head of the Israeli government press office, recommended a restaurant in the Gaza Strip: "In anticipation of foreign correspondents traveling to Gaza to cover reports of alleged humanitarian difficulties in the Hamas-run territory, and as part of efforts to facilitate the work of journalists in the region, the Government Press Office is pleased to bring to your attention the attached menu and information for the Roots Club and Restaurant in Gaza. We have been told the beef stroganoff and cream of spinach soup come highly recommended."

Samir Badr, 53, the head chef at Roots, isn't sure what to make of the Israeli recommendation. He is standing at the gas range in his kitchen, roasting eggplants. "If the Israelis knew how hard it is to get all the ingredients for beef stroganoff!" It starts with the meat, he says. The cattle come from Israel, but there is often no meat to be had, or cream, for that matter. It wouldn't survive the trip through the tunnels. Vegetables come from Gaza, but they are often contaminated, because of inadequate sewage treatment resulting from a lack of electricity. Besides, there are problems with cooking equipment, and plates, glasses and cutlery are in short supply.

Expensive Route

"Of course we're not starving, thanks to international aid and the United Nations," says Badr, "but we are suffering because of the blockade." The Israelis decide what gets into the Gaza Strip, and their rules defy all logic. According to an internal Israeli army list, cinnamon is allowed, but coriander is not, plastic buckets and combs are okay, but flowerpots and toys are not. This makes the Palestinians more dependent on smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt, but that route is expensive.

"The Israelis point to the few good things in Gaza, but they don't talk about the majority of people, who are not doing well," Basil Nasser, 44, one of the owners of Roots, says furiously. "Sure, there's enough to eat in Gaza, but poverty is more than that. Poverty is when the 15,000 people who graduate from the university each year have to beg for jobs as waiters, when an extended family lives in a single room and when the hospital lacks critical drugs. That's poverty."

The Germans have been trying to begin construction on a sewage treatment plant in the middle of the Gaza Strip for weeks, but the Israelis have prevented them from bringing in construction materials. Dirk Niebel, Germany's minister for economic cooperation and development, is even weighing cancelling a scheduled visit to Jerusalem in mid-June if no progress is made or if the Israelis refuse to allow him to enter the Gaza Strip. Niebel worked in a kibbutz as a teenager and is a member of the German-Israeli Society, but he has recently begun voicing criticism of Israel.

His story shows that the mood is also shifting among Israel's friends. A rift has been developing between Merkel and Netanyahu for months. Before Netanyahu's first official visit to Berlin, Israel's national security advisor requested that Merkel not publicly raise the issue of settlement construction. Nevertheless, the chancellor -- in Netanyahu's presence and on live camera -- called for a stop to settlement construction.

'Perhaps It Was a Mistake'

Even the United States, Israel's most important ally, is entertaining doubts as to the good intentions of the Israeli government. Last Tuesday, Mossad Director Meir Dagan, speaking to the foreign affairs committee of the Israeli Knesset, warned that Obama was considering dictating a peace solution to Israel. "Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden," Dagan said.

At the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York, the Americans even agreed to a declaration demanding that Israel allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) to enter the country. Netanyahu was furious. Until now, Israel hasn't even admitted to owning nuclear weapons.

Given the global furor that erupted against Israel last week, even Dani Ayalon, 54, Israel's deputy foreign minister, has become reflective. Ayalon was a career diplomat, most recently serving as Israel's ambassador to Washington, before joining Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. But Ayalon hasn't exactly been honing his diplomatic skills since the new government came into power. He was the one who humiliated the Turkish ambassador at the beginning of the year when he refused to shake his hand on camera, and then placed him on a noticeably lower sofa.

It says a lot about the Israeli government that it dispatched Ayalon to issue its first statement seven hours after the storming of the Mavi Marmara. The deputy foreign minister referred to the flotilla as an "armada of hate and violence in support of Hamas, a terror organization" and called upon the world not to walk into the "trap of provocation."

Meanwhile, he is beginning to realize that it was Israel that walked into the activists' trap. "It played into Hamas' hands," he admitted last week, sitting in the business lounge at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. The sharp international criticism, including the words of "our best friend, Angela Merkel," has made him thoughtful. He says that there were also "many people with good intentions" on board the ships. He also says that Israel will not block an investigation of the incidents under international observation.

At the end of the conversation, Ayalon says something that suggests that the Israelis may in fact have learned something last week: "Perhaps it was a mistake to storm the ships."