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Analysis: Israel's deadly sea raid a boon to Hamas

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[June 04, 2010]  GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israel's interception of a flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza has been a boon to Hamas and vastly improved prospects of at least easing the 3-year-old closure of the territory.

Before Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish vessel this week, the Islamic militant rulers of the impoverished Palestinian territory had reached a dead end in their desperate attempts to pry open the borders.

But then Israel sent commandos to try to stop the six-ship flotilla carrying tons of aid on Monday, prompting a violent confrontation that led to the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian activists.

InsuranceThe widespread outcry over the showdown at sea has forged a growing international consensus that the blockade cannot be sustained.

Hamas, once internationally isolated, can now count on the backing of Turkey, a powerful NATO ally with strong ties to the West.

A growing number of world leaders also have demanded a complete lifting of the embargo, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas wrested Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. The policy, which initially enjoyed the tacit backing of many in the international community, was meant to squeeze and eventually drive out Hamas.

Israel has remained defiant against the pressure, saying it is necessary to keep out weapons and goods such as cement and steel that could be diverted by Hamas for military use.

For now, the Obama administration is signaling it will stick to its gradual approach of persuading Israel to ease restrictions.

"We have to put as much pressure and as much cajoling on Israel as we can to allow them to get building materials in," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in a TV interview this week.

But grassroots pressure to lift the blockade keeps mounting, with more aid ships en route, including an Irish-flagged cargo ship heading toward Gaza on Friday.

For Hamas, the aid flotillas are a risk-free way of keeping the world's attention focused on the blockade. In the past, the militants often resorted to firing rockets at Israel to push back against the border closure, provoking harsh Israeli retaliation and international condemnation.

Some in Hamas portrayed this week's events as a watershed and a major boost to morale.

"There is no way this blockade will continue as it did before," predicted Omar Abdel Razek, a Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank. "Everyone in the region, in the international community, wants to put an end to it."

In what appeared to be a first sign of change, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered Egypt's passenger terminal with Gaza to open daily, instead of sporadically. Although the stringent rules of who can leave remain in place, the move is helping reduce the backlog of thousands of Gazans with permits trying to get out.

International Mideast envoy Tony Blair said the recent bloodshed made it clear that Gaza cannot be left unattended, even if the world disagrees with Hamas' often violent tactics.

"The mistake is always to think that if you get things going well in the West Bank, Gaza can somehow be left to the side," Blair told The Associated Press. "It will never be left to the side. It has 1.5 million people, and Hamas is also an actor in this thing."

Israel and other Hamas' critics argue that the Islamic militants could have ended the blockade long ago by releasing a captured Israeli soldier and accepting international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

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Hamas refused, in part because it feared diluting its militant ideology would lead to the eventual demise of the movement. Instead, it chose to ride out the blockade by smuggling commercial goods, cash and Iranian-funded weapons through tunnels along the border with Egypt.

After this 3-year standoff, Turkey's unexpected high-profile support for Hamas demands to open Gaza's borders signaled a turning point. Turkey was the unofficial sponsor of the flotilla and berated Israel, an erstwhile regional ally, over the clash at sea that left eight Turks and an American of Turkish origin dead.

Hamas has proudly displayed its new friendship with Turkey, which has been trying to assert itself as a Mideast player and appears to have shifted closer to Syria and Iran, at the expense of its traditional alliance with Israel.

In sharp contrast, the Hamas government has often played down its ties to its main foreign supporter, Iran.

The crisis has also benefited Hamas at home. Before the clash at sea, the cash-strapped Hamas government was busy fending off an angry backlash against an aggressive taxation campaign, and its popularity was sagging.

"Of course, Hamas is more popular after the ship issue," said Mohammed Shamali, 45, who owns an electronics shop in Gaza City, citing the opening of the Egyptian border crossing and the outpouring of international support for Gaza.

Under the blockade, Israel has allowed only basic humanitarian goods into Gaza but barred virtually all exports and the import of raw materials, including construction supplies. The ban has wiped out most private industry and hampered U.N.-led efforts to rebuild what was destroyed during Israel's military offensive against Gaza 16 months ago.

Israel has said it would allow more goods in, and in recent weeks permitted the first small shipments of wood and aluminum. However, Western diplomats and aid agencies have complained that Israeli foot-dragging has delayed vital projects in Gaza.

[Associated Press; By KARIN LAUB and IBRAHIM BARZAK]

Laub, who reported from the West Bank, has covered Israel and the Palestinian territories since 1987. Barzak has covered Gaza since 1992. Additional reporting by Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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