Israel's Crisis At Sea -- Another Storm Coming

By C. Hart

Israel is expecting the arrival soon of another flotilla of ships, this time Iranian-sponsored. This follows on the heels of the Turkish IHH- and Free Gaza-sponsored flotilla that was stopped by Israeli naval commanders on May 31, 2010 when attempting to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. Not only is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government concerned about the Iranian flotilla, but Israel's military is on high alert for the possible intrusion of a Lebanese fast boat. The fast boat may attempt to hinder Israel's naval operations at sea at the same time that the Iranian ship is being intercepted. The fast boat, linked to Hizbullah, is expected to include female Islamic militants on board.

The Israeli government has stepped up its efforts to warn international activists not to board ships sailing from Iran or Lebanon, claiming it will endanger their lives, as Israel's navy forces plan to stop the ships in international waters before they reach Gaza.

Meanwhile, family members of the nine Turks killed by Israeli naval commandos on the Mavi Mamara ship say they will join the next IHH-sponsored flotilla that sails from Turkey to Gaza. Israel is concerned that Turkey may include a naval escort to accompany future aid ships on their voyage to Gaza.

This guerrilla war at sea is a ploy to use "humanitarian" terrorism as a way of changing the political climate in the Middle East, influencing public opinion by trapping Israel in a diplomatic quagmire. It distracts from major issues such as stopping Iran's nuclear capabilities and trying to weaken Iran's goal of regional hegemony.

The Changing Geopolitical Map

The current axis of state-sponsored terrorism (Iran-Syria-Lebanon-Gaza) that has been a major concern for Israel has now expanded to include Turkey.

Turkey has just downgraded relations with Israel and is set to cancel military contracts with the Jewish State. Until recently, Turkey was Israel's largest trading partner in the region and its strongest business ally in the Middle East. At least $20 billion of ongoing projects in the energy, water, and agricultural sectors are currently at risk because of deteriorating diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel.  

While Turkish trade with Israel decreases, Turkish trade with Arab countries is steadily increasing. Last year, Turkey did $29 billion in trade with Arab League nations. Turkey's business with Islamic countries and economic ties to Islamic markets is luring Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan into forming new alliances. He is dependent on Islamic aid to keep him in power. The money coming into his coffers -- especially finances pouring in from Saudi Arabia -- should help him with his reelection campaign in 2011.

Saudi Arabia is concerned that Iran's intent on becoming a nuclear superpower will give the Shiites throughout the Middle East increased power. This may very well weaken Sunni Arab influence in the region.

Despite the recent Islamic fundamentalism sweeping across Turkey, its reputation for being a secular, modern Islamic state with ties to Europe and the Arab world makes Erdogan a promising new star on the horizon. He could become a mediator in a future struggle between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The gap in the Shiite-Sunni divide narrows when Moslem interests are shared, specifically in efforts to weaken Israel, diplomatically and militarily. This is another reason Turkey is becoming a catalyst for greater unity among members of the Islamic radical front in the Middle East.

Turkey is currently in a strategic partnership with Iran, intent on strengthening Iran's proxy, Hamas. Turkey would like to overshadow Egypt's mediation efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas in order to unite Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. If these two groups unite, they will be a political force to contend with, and they will put greater pressure on the international community to lift the Gaza blockade. The leverage Israel has over Hamas would evaporate, and the possible release of Israel's POW, Gilad Shalit, would diminish.

With the recent opening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which now allows Hamas militants to cross freely back and forth, it's expected that there will be an increase in terror coordination between Hamas and its parent organization, the Moslem Brotherhood. This could cause greater instability within the Egyptian government. A weakening of Egypt's moderates could pave the way for increased terrorist infiltration into Israel through the porous Sinai border.

Egyptian authorities have agreed to allow three Iranian parliamentary members to visit the Gaza Strip. This is the first of its kind by a high-level Iranian delegation. Iranian Revolutionary Guards have already infiltrated Gaza through open border crossings in years past, with the intent of training and instructing Hamas fighters.

Iran has been able to deliver weapons to Hamas, in single components, through Gaza's tunnels. But Egypt is clamping down on tunnel smuggling, which has resulted in fewer weapons reaching Hamas, as well as less money getting into the hands of its government. This has caused a financial crisis for Hamas, weakening its control of Gaza.

Several of the forty violent operatives that were on board the Mavi Marmara ship during Israel's recent confrontation with the flotilla had $10,000 each in cash. Stacks of money were also found on board in one of the operative's control rooms. It's probable that the funds were destined for Hamas. Now, with an Iranian delegation being given the green light to enter Gaza, it may be a way of getting millions of dollars into the hands of a cash-strapped Hamas, giving the terrorist organization a lifeline for keeping its government functioning.

The International Community Caters to Hamas

Meanwhile, members of the Obama administration have recently hinted at future dialogue with Hamas, and Hamas has hinted at back-channel discussions already taking place with the U.S. European and Russian diplomats have been talking to Hamas, and the perception is that while nothing has changed in terms of the Hamas doctrine towards Israel, the international community has changed in that there is more willingness to negotiate directly with the terrorist organization.

Hamas wants its Islamic allies to have free access to Gaza's sea port in order to help arm its government with long-range Iranian missiles and other weapons. The kinds of arms that can be brought in by sea are much greater than those that can be smuggled in by land. Egypt is building an underground wall with plans to close the tunnels. This means less opportunity for Hamas to receive weapons by land, and it makes the opening of the Gaza sea port an important strategic goal for them.

Hamas will continue to use humanitarian aid organizations to try to break the Gaza blockade, while the international community debates how much pressure to put on Israel to lift the blockade and open the sea port. There is some acknowledgment on the part of western diplomats that they are playing into the hands of Hamas. But European and Arab governments are more concerned about riots on their streets from protesters who sympathize with Gaza's need for humanitarian aid for its population. Seeing biased media reports on their TV and computer screens, these protesters do not understand that sufficient aid is coming through Israel's border crossings to adequately feed Gaza residents.

This current crisis is already turning into a war of attrition, catching Israeli leaders by surprise. Israel's military was preparing for a war on its northern and southern borders with Iranian proxies Hizbullah and Hamas. But Israel's intelligence agencies did not accurately assess that its adversaries would use humanitarian terrorism as a way of entrapping the Jewish State at sea.

The European Union Emerges as a Key Player

The EU has been debating what to do about the flotilla crisis. Activists from at least twelve European nations were on the recent flotilla, so parliament members have a vested interest in calming tensions. Europe could now play a pivotal role in the Middle East in trying to ease the blockade by calling for EU monitors to be stationed at Israeli and Egyptian border crossings into Gaza.

The EU has also talked about a plan to use European monitoring forces at sea in an effort to investigate cargo ships before they come into the area of the Gaza sea port. Israel is opposed to this effort, claiming that international naval monitoring forces did not prevent the smuggling of arms to Hizbullah after the Second Lebanon War. So why should Israel now trust the effectiveness of such forces to inspect cargo ships in Cyprus or anywhere else before reaching Gaza? 

Prime Minister Netanyahu has already claimed that Israel will not allow the free flow of war material and contraband to Hamas via an open Gaza sea passage. Furthermore, if the blockade is lifted, Israel expects a resurgence of arms trafficking, along with an influx of terror groups into Gaza. Already there is the potential for terrorists to freely move through the Rafah border crossing that has been indefinitely opened by Egypt.

Who Will Win The Battle at Sea During the Next Crisis?

The purpose of the recent flotilla event was to create an international upheaval that would isolate Israel and legitimize Hamas. If you look at Israel's current standing among the nations, the flotilla event was a success in that it did put Israel into greater diplomatic isolation. Round One, Hamas won. If the nations continue to engage Hamas, and play into the hands of humanitarian terrorists, Hamas is bound to win Round Two.

The world was quick to condemn Israel without considering the facts of what happened on the Mavi Marmara. As this war of attrition heats up again, Israel's ability to diffuse tensions at sea will be the key to its effectiveness in diffusing tensions on the diplomatic front and in the public arena. 

Israel's elite naval forces have learned that they are facing not only peace activists sailing on Mediterranean waters, but also state-sponsored terrorist operatives. With greater intelligence information, along with experiences recently learned at sea, Israel's military will be more prepared to confront the next flotilla of ships expected to arrive close to Israeli-Gaza shores any day now.

C. Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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