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Analysis: Condemnation of Israeli assault complicates relations with U.S.

Israeli naval commandos seized an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip on May 31, killing at least nine and wounding dozens, and sparking protests and condemnations around the world.

Apart from the raid, attention is likely to fall on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which has faced an Israeli blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power three years ago. Although the Obama administration has pressed quietly for less onerous restrictions on trade, it has not questioned Israeli policies. Special envoy George J. Mitchell has never visited Gaza in about a dozen trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Without high-level attention, the situation in Gaza -- a narrow coastal area with 1.5 million people -- has faded from view. Now that might change.

Robert Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, said Monday's deaths were a consequence of ignoring the "unhealed wound that is Gaza."

In condemning Israel's actions Monday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton signaled that the European Union would press anew for a shift in policy. "The E.U. does not accept the continued policy of closure," she said in a statement. "It is unacceptable and politically counterproductive. We need to urgently achieve a durable solution to the situation in Gaza."

Malley said U.S. officials have told him that the situation in Gaza "is very high on Obama's agenda." Obama highlighted Gaza in his Cairo speech a year ago, saying, "Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security."

In that speech, Obama appeared to appeal to Palestinians to undertake acts of civil disobedience rather than violence, saying that it was "not violence that won full and equal rights" for African Americans but "a peaceful and determined insistence."

Whether the flotilla was an act of civil disobedience remains up for debate. Its organizers said it was, but Israeli officials said members of the Israel Defense Forces were met with violence when they boarded the ships.

Not only has the incident strengthened the Islamist Hamas, it has probably weakened the secular Palestinian leadership on the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas quickly condemned the attack as a "massacre," but he will probably face new pressure to abandon indirect talks with Israel.

Iran, whose nuclear ambitions deeply concern Israeli leaders, also is a beneficiary. Turkey holds one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council and was already deeply skeptical of the U.S.-led push to impose new sanctions on the Islamic republic. But now the council's attention will be diverted by the Israeli assault.

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