Tel Aviv—Amid heavy international pressure on the issue, domestic political support for Israel’s economic blockade of the Gaza Strip border passages has badly frayed.
Once confined largely to the Israeli left, criticism of a policy that banned basic goods such as fresh meat, margarine and plaster has spread to security hawks who acknowledge the closure is not serving its original policy goal of weakening Hamas. That may make it easier politically for the government to make concessions on a blockade that, until now, has enjoyed widespread popular support.
Aryeh Eldad, a parliament member from the far-right National Union party, called the policy a “total failure.”
“The Hamas is as strong as the day we started the blockade,” he said. “There is no sign the suffering population accuses Hamas as being responsible. If they want to eat caviar, let them eat caviar.”
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the government has relaxed the closure in recent months and continues to mull new ways to let in more goods. He declined to comment further.
But now, in the wake of Israel’s deadly interception of the attempted blockade-busting flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists two weeks ago, Jerusalem is considering sweeping changes to the policy as a way to deflect world wide criticism.
In another sign of Israel’s distress, the government announced a commission of inquiry with two foreign observers to examine the international legality of Israel’s actions in the flotilla incident.
While announcement of the commission – which, some cabinet ministers complained, is meant primarily to back up Israeli policy – was headline news in Israel, the changes in blockade policy being discussed this week are seen as much a much more far reaching concession.
“The big story is the change of Israel’s policy regarding the blockade,” said Hebrew University Political Science professor Yaron Ezrahi. “This can be interpreted as an achievement of the flotilla.”
Instead of banning all goods with a few exceptions, the new rules are expected to prohibit only a narrow list of goods, with a focus on weapons and dual-use items that can be used for the manufacture of armaments.
It is not clear if the revised blockade will allow building materials like concrete and metal rods into Gaza. While Israel alleges that the goods will be used by Hamas to reinforce its military infrastructure, the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after the late 2008 incursion depends on the building materials.
The United Nations and other members of the Quartet of Middle East peace sponsors are expected to push to open up Gaza for building materials. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said it has already proven in a trial project with Israel that it is capable of distributing them in Gaza.
“We have shown that we can ensure the integrity of the aid pipeline to [make sure] Hamas doesn’t get to it,” said UNRWA spokesman Chris Guinness. He said that 39,000 Gaza children whose parents wanted them to attend U.N. schools are instead studying in Hamas schools because UNRWA can’t rebuild classrooms damaged during the war.
The near total closure of land passages into the Gaza Strip has been in force since Hamas gained control of the coastal territory in 2007; the blockade was supported by both Egypt and the Palestinian government in the West Bank. On Tuesday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for Israel to remove all restrictions on its border passages into Gaza.
Dror Bar Yosef, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian affairs analyst, said Prime Minister Netanyahu will be parting ways with the policy inherited from the Olmert government, which sought to isolate Hamas and weaken its domestic Palestinian support.
“The siege is over. [Border crossings] will be open, but restricted and supervised – Israel still needs some kind of leverage over Hamas,” he said. “In the long run it will be bad for Hamas. If there is economic development [Gazans] won’t have the Israelis to blame for their problems.”
Just last week, many argued that lifting the siege in response to international pressure would be interpreted as a political victory for Hamas. But senior government officials signaled on Tuesday that a major shift is in the works.
“The time has arrived to change the closure policy in its current format. It doesn’t give any value to Israel diplomatically and it’s creating difficult image problems…. It hasn’t brought Gilad Shalit back,” said Cabinet Minister Dan Meridor in an interview with Israel Radio.
“There’s a need for a new paradigm. So what was communicated to the Europeans, including [Quartet Representative and former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, is that Israel plans to change the regime at the borders to allow easier passage of goods,” he said.
Pro-Palestinian groups blame the blockade for creating 44 percent unemployment and 80 percent dependence on welfare charity in Gaza, but Israel counters that there is no humanitarian crisis there.
Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin also said that Israeli policy at the borders could be changed.
Israel is unlikely, however, to lift the naval blockade of Gaza – a move which Diskin told the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee would create a substantial security risk to the Jewish state.
Eldad said that the diplomatic pressure has prompted the government to consider proposals for international assistance in monitoring sea shipments to Gaza. He added, however, that this is unlikely because of the failure of the United Nations force in Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah’s re-arming after the 2006 war.
Transportation Minister Yitzhak Katz said that Israel should consider shutting its border crossings completely and shift responsibility for Gaza to Egypt via the Rafah crossing.
However, such a solution is unlikely to be adopted by Netanyahu and Barak because it could stir up tensions with Egypt, which is reluctant to take responsibility for the territory’s 1.5 million Palestinians.
A complete Israeli disengagement from Gaza could also create new problems with the international community because it would effectively sever some of the last remaining Gaza-West Bank links. Under the peace accords from the 1990s, Israel recognized the two territories as one political unit.
“Cutting off Gaza from the West Bank is inconsistent with Israeli and US-declared policy goals. It would be an end to the peace process and the two-state solution,” said Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, an Israeli non-profit that has pushed the Jerusalem government to provide more access to Gaza.
As long as Israel continues to control access to Gaza territorial waters and Gaza airspace, it will be considered an occupying power, and will be responsible for the residents there, she said.
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