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The Hezbo(ti)lla

Amidst all this jockeying, there is another player, under-analyzed since the initial flotilla furore, but nonetheless critical to its outcome: the Lebanese terrorist movement, Hezbollah.
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Behind the rush to send further flotillas to the Gaza Strip, a power game between Islamists of various stripes is emerging. While Turkish, Palestinian, Iranian and Hezbollah flags have all been spotted at rallies and port side gatherings in support of the flotillistas, these scenes of apparent unity belie a more conflicted reality beneath.

Turkey's government, having cast itself as a kind of neo-Ottoman guardian of the Palestinians, is the object of much goodwill among Gazans. That has irked the Iranians, the principal sponsor of the Hamas regime, into a display of one-upmanship: Last week, Tehran announced that it was sending its own flotilla under the protection of the Iranian Navy -- a pledge it subsequently backed away from.

Not to be outdone, the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, seized on the recent flotilla clash to start beating the drums of war. In an interview with the BBC, Assad said that the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara had ruled out any prospects for peace in the near future. Such bellicosity suggests that Assad wants to claim the mantle of his late father, Hafez, as the "lion" of the region. As Syria both hosts the exiled Hamas leadership and has been the object of recent American overtures, Assad has at least two reasons to believe he can do so.

Amidst all this jockeying, there is another player, under-analyzed since the initial flotilla furor, but nonetheless critical to its outcome: the Lebanese terrorist movement, Hezbollah.

Like Hamas, Hezbollah is wedded to the idea of an unyielding war against the Jews ("if the Jews all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide," Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah famously declared.) And like Hamas, it is also locked in struggle with a rival Arab leadership. For Hamas, it's the Palestinian Authority; for Hezbollah, the Lebanese state.

In legal and political terms, Hezbollah is an outlaw. The group is shunned by western states as an interlocutor, is militarily stronger now than in 2006, when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1701 demanding that it disarm, and remains the most immediate threat to Lebanon's integrity. Just this week, a top Hezbollah financier was arrested in a region of Paraguay well-known for smuggling and organized crime. Craving both its weapons and international legitimacy, Hezbollah recognizes that there are times when a slice of political respectability can come in very useful.

The flotilla campaign has provided Hezbollah with an opportunity to show its "humanitarian" side and to align itself with Turkey. The wily Nasrallah understands that, for all the current tensions between Turkey and the west, Ankara is in a much better position to strengthen his hand within Lebanon than are either of Hezbollah's traditional backers, Iran and Syria. Hence Nasrallah's fulsome praise of the Turkish leadership, which has apparently resulted in an invitation from Prime Minister Erdogan for him to visit Turkey.

Even with his supporters chanting "O Allah, O Merciful One, watch over Erdogan," Nasrallah shows no sign of moderating. Nor has he lost any of his customary hubris (the opposition website Syria Truth quoted Nasrallah saying -- translation here -- that Turkey's "red flag" was "making decisions" based on Hezbollah's "yellow flag.") Hence his decision to back the new flotilla which is reportedly heading to Gaza from Lebanon.

This flotilla is being organized by Yasser Kashlak, a Palestinian businessman based in Lebanon. Kashlak is known for his ties to terror groups, having shared the platform at a January "pro-resistance" conference in Beirut with representatives of Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Syrian Ba'ath Party and the Iranian Vice-President, Reza Mir Tajeddini. Kashlak insists that his flotilla is an independent initiative, but Al Manar, Hezbollah's broadcasting arm, disagrees, noting that the voyage was announced less than a day after Nasrallah appealed for more flotillas to head for Gaza. The assertion of no connection with Hezbollah is further undermined by the presence of Samar Hajj, the wife of a former Lebanese General jailed for his part in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

If the Mavi Marmara saga didn't prove it already, Hezbollah's planned foray into Mediterranean waters demonstrates that the flotilla movement is about many things, but humanitarian aid isn't one of them. Israel's decision to further ease the blockade of Gaza will therefore make little difference. The goal here is to assault Israel with more tenacity than one's rivals. Should that mean dispatching a few martyrs along the way, then so be it.

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