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Flotilla assault puts U.S. on spot

On a hot Memorial Day when Americans were honoring their war veterans, the world was shocked to hear an alarming report of troops and new bloodshed halfway around the world.

On a hot Memorial Day when Americans were honoring their war veterans, the world was shocked to hear an alarming report of troops and new bloodshed halfway around the world.

The encounter between Israeli defense forces and a so-called "freedom flotilla" attempting to break that nation's embargo against Palestinians living in Gaza, reportedly left nine activists dead - and a host of unsettling questions.

Although the Obama administration issued a wait-and-see statement, most other nations were quick to condemn Israel's actions. But what does it mean for the future of a region that has been the world's most volatile for decades?

Here are some questions and answers:

Q. OK, I confess, I knew nothing of the flotilla before Monday, and was only vaguely aware there were problems with Israel and Gaza. What's going on?

A. No need to be embarrassed. In the waning days of the Bush administration in December 2008, Israeli forces launched a brief war against Gaza and its elected government led by Hamas, which both Israel and the United States classify as a terrorist organization.

Israel claimed its air strikes and subsequent ground invasion were a response to rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel. The war ended in early 2009 but Israel has maintained a successful blockade - including turning away earlier attempts at relief flotillas - of the densely populated but narrow strip of land.

Last Sunday, a coalition of pro-Gaza groups launched six ships toward the region from Cyprus, with a cargo described as $20 million in humanitarian aid. The confrontation between the flotilla and an elite Israeli sea unit - armed with paintball guns and conventional handguns - took place some 40 miles offshore, in international waters.

Q. So what happened?

A. That's the big question. Five of the six boats were seized without incident, and the violence happened aboard the sixth, the Mavi Marmara.

Israel claims that its commandos, who descended from helicopters on ropes, were met with violent resistance, that one was stabbed and another was thrown to the deck. They released a photo of knives and large sticks confiscated on board.

The activists have had a hard time getting their story out - many have been detained and are still unable to speak with reporters - but those who've talked said the Israeli account is ridiculous. They charge that the only resistance on board the ship was passive and mild and that the soldiers are responsible for the aggression, including the shooting.

Q. Even if the Israeli military version is accurate, it seems like a huge PR blunder for the hard-line government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why would they do this?

A. Experts say that Netanyahu - in his second stint as prime minister (and also a 1967 graduate of Cheltenham High School) - brings his own background as an elite commando to the job, and has surrounded himself with advisers who also look toward military approaches.

"They have a military mentality that doesn't really place a lot of stock in political solutions," said Ian Lustick, a Middle East expert from the University of Pennsylvania. "He thinks very highly of his own capabilities."

Q. But why raid the flotilla in such a provocative way, at night in international waters?

A. Clearly, Israel didn't expect anything would go so badly awry, perhaps because of its prior success in turning back relief ships. Several news accounts said Netanyahu and his commanders thought the boats would turn around without incident at the very sight of its military forces.

Q. Are Israeli citizens backing the action?

A. There've been no public-opinion polls yet, but clearly many Israelis support a hard-line approach to Gaza and the Palestinian situation in general; experts note the population has grown increasingly conservative since the second Palestinian intifada, or "uprising," in 2000, exacerbated by hard-line new arrivals to Israel from Russia and elsewhere.

Some liberal factions in Israel believe backlash from the raid will further isolate the tiny country, with devastating consequences. The newspaper Haaretz editorialized: "The decision makers' negligence is threatening the security of Israelis, and Israel's global status. Someone must be held responsible for this disgraceful failure."

Q. Will the United States hold Israel responsible?

A. Not yet - for now the Obama administration has pressed for more information about what happened at sea but also worked to weaken a UN resolution that would have condemned Israel. Some Middle East pundits such as Lustick say the Obama approach is at least more evenhanded than the Bush administration, which tended to parrot the Israeli line.

Q. Have we heard the last of the incident?

A. Hardly. For one thing, Israel continues to detain as many as 600 activists who were aboard the six ships, and when these prisoners are released their interviews with reporters could fuel more outrage.

The Egyptian government has thrown open its border with Gaza, which could greatly weaken the blockade, and activists are also making plans to send more ships toward Gaza. The first one even has a provocative name - The Rachel Corrie, for the American pro-Palestinian activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003.