The Israeli government decision to end its three-year blockade of civilian goods entering the Gaza Strip is a welcome move. Sadly, it came about a year too late, and its timing and circumstances benefited the wrong parties. That's because the Netanyahu government (in all fairness, like many of its predecessors) seems to do the right thing only under heavy pressure.
The move is welcome because the blockade was plainly counterproductive. The stated objectives of the blockade--which varied from time to time--were to oblige Hamas to moderate its policies or otherwise to weaken or depose that Islamist movement, and to force a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit on terms acceptable to Israel. Had the blockade achieved any of these objectives, it might have been defensible to impose collective punishment on 1.5 million Gazans. Instead, Hamas grew stronger, while the more moderate Gazan business and agrarian sectors that depend on trade with and via Israel grew weaker. Gilad Shalit is still a prisoner of Hamas. The failure of the blockade was obvious at least a year ago. Even PM Binyamin Netanyahu has reportedly allowed that he recognized the counterproductive nature of the economic warfare waged against Gaza soon after taking office.
The Netanyahu government did not invent this strategy, but rather inherited it from the Olmert government which in turn inherited a partial and occasional blockade from the Sharon government. Sharon's initial reliance on economic warfare against Gaza is instructive: upon carrying out Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Strip in the summer of 2005, Sharon threatened far-reaching military measures if, following withdrawal, Qassam rocket attacks against Israeli civilian targets continued. When, within weeks of the withdrawal, the attacks were renewed, Sharon, followed soon by Olmert, responded not with massive military force but with economic warfare, including the dismantling of the entire economic incentive structure put in place by the international community to take advantage of the withdrawal.
But Sharon's economic punishment did not stop the Qassams. Consequently, Israel's deterrent image was badly damaged. Hamas escalated its attacks until Israel finally did respond with overwhelming force in late 2008-early 2009. In this sense, the past five years of dealing with Hamas in Gaza are illustrative of the difficulty Israel has in finding strategies to deal with a militant Islamist non-state neighbor that rejects Israel's existence, would welcome an Israeli invasion and is prepared for its population to be martyred.
Israel did not embark alone on the blockade. Three years ago, when Hamas took over the Strip in a violent coup against Fateh, the decision to punish Gaza until Hamas agreed to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept the Oslo framework was made collectively by the Olmert government together with the Quartet, Egypt and the PLO. With the passage of time, and as the counterproductive nature of the blockade became increasingly obvious, Israel's partners publicly took their distance, though privately some continued to encourage Israel to continue.
An Israeli government capable of recognizing the damage its policies were inflicting and taking bold initiatives to correct them, would have at least tried to convene its siege partners for a collective reevaluation and insist on a revised collective decision. To be fair, this might not have been easy: Egypt increasingly coordinates its own war against Islamist terrorism and Iranian encroachment with Israel, but when it comes to Gaza it insists that, as part and parcel of the Palestinian issue, the Strip is Israel's problem. And at a time when Israel's official dealings with the PLO are indirect and rife with mutual suspicion, coordination with Ramallah is probably impossible.
Thus it took international pressure prompted by the botched interception of a supply flotilla headed for Gaza to force Netanyahu's hand. As a consequence, Israel appears weak. The immediate beneficiaries of the cancelled blockade, in addition to the Gazan people, are Hamas and Turkey, whose actions catalyzed Israel's decision. Egypt and the PLO are publicly jubilant but privately ambivalent: they, like Israel, are hardly interested in strengthening Hamas. Indeed, the PLO's prestige among its West Bank constituency can only be harmed by the move, and all it can do is make the best of a difficult situation. Further, both Israel and the PLO must now recognize that relaxing a blockade imposed in coordination with the Quartet moves us closer to direct western diplomatic contact with Hamas, to the possible detriment of an Israel-PLO peace process.
At the broadest strategic level, relaxing the blockade constitutes a step toward the seemingly inevitable acquiescence of all concerned in a three-state (or three-entity) reality, with Hamas rule in Gaza now more permanent than ever. How we arrived at a situation in which an Islamist emirate rules an over-populated, barren strip of sand along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean is no longer worth crying over, any more than is the emergence of a Hizballah emirate further north up the coast. Israel, the only candidate for militarily reoccupying either and physically eliminating Hamas or Hizballah, is not about to take up that challenge, and for good reasons: they do not existentially threaten us, however disgusting their rhetoric, while we have learned the hard way the evils of occupation.
Best to come to terms with Hamas while containing and deterring it militarily in every possible way, including by sea. And this means not only not waging ill-conceived economic warfare that blackens our international image, but also permitting the export of goods from Gaza, carefully investigating possibilities of direct contact, and coordinating policy to the greatest extent possible with Egypt, the PLO and the West.- Published 28/6/2010 © bitterlemons.org
The three-year old Israeli blockade on Gaza has come under intense international scrutiny ever since Israel criminally boarded a flotilla of ships in international waters, killing nine activists coming to show solidarity with Gaza.
The closure regime was always much more than "just" collective punishment on 1.5 million Palestinians to pressure Hamas, due either to the capture of Gilad Shalit or rockets fired at Israel.
For a start, it began more than a year before the Palestinian political split and the Hamas takeover of Gaza. It rather came as part of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip settlements and is an essential part of an Israeli strategy that aims at dealing with some of the demographic considerations of the conflict by getting rid of 1.5 million Palestinians.
This Israeli strategy was, in other words, aimed at countering the Palestinian and international vision of peace based on the two-state solution. By systematically trying to shift the dependency of Gaza on the West Bank and Israel to somewhere else, i.e., Egypt, Israel has been trying to de-link Gaza from the West Bank and consequently create a reality not conducive to the creation of a Palestinian state in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem.
But Israel was caught between this strategic dimension of its siege policy on Gaza and the growing pressure from the international community, whose attention to the blockade was brought firmly into focus by the flotilla crime.
Israel has tried to escape that pressure in two ways. First, Israel wanted to encourage movement to and from Gaza via either the sea--with international inspection or through Ashdod--or Egypt. The second has been to close an eye to the movement through Rafah between Gaza and Egypt. The common denominator was that Israel was willing to entertain ideas that avoided easing the closure at the crossings between Gaza and Israel.
The Palestinian position, which was understood and supported by the Quartet--the UN, the US, the EU and Russia--insisted however that the lifting of the closure or even the easing of the blockade should include all Gaza's passages, including those between Gaza and Israel.
That was for two reasons, one to ensure and maintain the connection and movement of persons and products between the West Bank and Gaza. All the international parties believe that any solution to the conflict must include an independent Palestinian state in those two areas. The second reason was to prevent Israel from escaping its responsibilities toward Gaza. The international community still considers Gaza an Israeli-occupied territory, since Israel continues to control its borders, sea- and air-space.
For all these reasons, the Israeli decision to ease the siege, which was described by the Israeli media as "liberalizing" the closure, was seen as a satisfactory measure neither by the Palestinians nor by the international community.
Both reacted by suggesting resuming the implementation of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which stipulates the free and flexible movement of persons and products through all Gaza crossings with the necessary legal, financial and security arrangements that were accepted and agreed by the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Israel and the US.
The AMA further stresses the interrelation and connectivity in all necessary aspects between the West Bank and Gaza, including ensuring the smooth movement of Palestinians and products between the two areas, within the West Bank and between the occupied territories and the outside world.- Published 28/6/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Gazans deserve a better future
by Efraim Inbar
Bowing to misguided international pressure, particularly from the West, the Israeli government lifted nearly three years of restrictions on civilian goods allowed into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The restrictions had been imposed in reaction to the repeated launching of missiles into Israel's population centers. This decision hardly makes any strategic sense because it helps Hamas, an ally of revolutionary Islamist Iran. Both are anti-western forces focused on destroying the Jewish state.
The easing of the blockade reflects the success of a Hamas propaganda campaign to depict the situation in Gaza as a humanitarian disaster. While Gaza is not prospering, the standard of living there is generally higher than in Egypt--a little noticed fact. The ability of this Goebbels-type propaganda to entrench a tremendous lie in the consciousness of the international community testifies to the continued vulnerability of naive westerners to sophisticated psychological warfare and to the complicity of much of the western press in this enterprise.
The step taken by the Israeli government also significantly helps Hamas strengthen its grip on Gazans, as Hamas controls the distribution of any goods entering its territory. Moreover, even if Hamas allows for a general improvement in the daily lives of all Gazans, this reduces the incentive for regime change, which should be part of the western goal to give Gazans a better future. Strengthening this radical theological regime in the eastern Mediterranean, which is linked to revolutionary Iran, defies western rational thinking.
The entrenchment of Hamas rule in Gaza amplifies the schism in Palestinian society and strengthens Hamas' influence in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. It is also a slap in the face of President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the PA, who demanded the blockade's continuation. Hamas' achievement here further undermines whatever ability--albeit a very limited ability--the Palestinian national movement had to move toward compromise with the Jewish state.
The international pressure that led to the Israeli decision also indicates a gross misunderstanding of Israel's predicament and its legitimate right of self-defense. Israel totally disengaged from Gaza in 2005, hoping that the Gazans would focus their energy on state-building and achieving prosperity. Gazans could have decided to try to become a Hong Kong or a Singapore. Yet, Hamas turned Gaza into a political entity engaged in waging war on the Jewish state by launching thousands of missiles with the specific intent to harm Israeli civilians. Ironically, Hamas demands that Israel allow a supply of goods into the Strip.
It is legally and morally outrageous to claim that Israel is responsible for the Gazans, who are no longer under Israeli occupation and who have supported in great numbers the rule of Hamas. After the 2005 withdrawal, Israel's responsibilities--stemming from previously being an occupying power--ended.
Since Gaza is an enemy country, it does not deserve any special treatment from Israel beyond the latter's legitimate steps taken in pursuit of self-defense. Israel, like any other sovereign state, has every right to close its border with a belligerent neighbor. Moreover, it has no obligation whatsoever to provide water, electricity, fuel or access to food and/or medical supplies to its forsworn enemies. Why on earth should Israel aid those that want to eradicate its existence?
The bewildering and hypocritical international response to Israel's attempts to prevent war materiel from reaching Gaza, as manifested in the criticism surrounding the "Gaza flotilla" incident, should be of great concern to Jerusalem. Again, we see the successful application of a propaganda war whose objective is to deny Israel its legitimate right of self-defense. This campaign is part of a larger plan designed by the enemies of the West to neutralize the superior capacity of the West, and Israel in particular.
Instead of easing the blockade, the Israeli government should have announced its intention to exercise its sovereign right to close the border with Gaza and to halt the transfer of any goods to its enemy within several months. Israel must make clear to the world that it refuses to accept responsibility for the welfare of Gazan residents, particularly since they are employing violence against the Jewish state.
The period of time leading up to the actual border closure should be used to establish alternative routes of supply via Egypt, which also borders Gaza. Egypt is unlikely to welcome such a development because it prefers to keep the Gaza hot potato in Israel's lap. However, the Egyptians are much more adept at dealing with the Gazans, whom they ruled in the past using Arab methods. The Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere are not only Israel's problem, but constitute a regional headache. Therefore, responsible Arab actors should take part in addressing this issue.- Published 28/6/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Sustainable development needs a complete lifting of the siege
an interview with Omar Shaban
bitterlemons: Has there been any tangible change in Gaza since Israel announced an easing of its blockade?
Shaban: There is a difference, but the question is how much. Compared to the three weeks before the flotilla, yes, there is a difference. But considering that the entire siege is illegal, there is no difference.
bitterlemons: When you say there is a difference, what do you mean?
Shaban: UNRWA has started to receive some construction materials. It's not much and it's still early to really measure the results. Second, some other items have been allowed in, again, not that many and there's not that big a difference.
bitterlemons: What does Gaza need?
Shaban: Gaza needs the whole siege to be lifted. Gaza needs all crossings to be operating fully for two years just to make up for what has happened in the past three years and to cater to natural growth. Gaza needs two to three million tons of cement and 600,000 tons of steel just to rebuild the damage that has been wrought here in the past few years.
bitterlemons: In terms of sustainable development...?
Shaban: Gaza needs free movement. We need to export, people need to be able to travel, to make business, and people need to be able to come to Gaza. Banks need to be able to operate normally and cash needs to be injected.
Israel has made much of the fact that there is no starvation in Gaza. But the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not about food. People don't live on food alone. The humanitarian crisis is about education, it's about development, about imprisonment; it's about a cultural and physical siege and isolation. There is no starvation in Gaza, but 90 percent of Gazans cannot feed themselves. That is a humanitarian crisis.
bitterlemons: Will the easing lead to any concrete change in Gaza?
Shaban: Yes, it will. On reconstruction, for example, even if it has to go through UNRWA and other international agencies, it will create jobs and cause some economic activity. There are other, desperately needed projects that may finally happen, like repairs to the waste treatment network and some water projects. So something positive will come out of it.
But this is not enough. As Palestinians we have to encourage this development and demand continuity. But sustainable development needs a complete lifting of the siege. There is a danger that Gazans are becoming completely aid dependent. If the siege is kept in any form and only United Nations and other international agencies work, private industry will not be able to function, individuals will not be able to build their own houses, and industry will not operate, leaving all of Gaza dependent on either cash aid or in-kind assistance.
bitterlemons: With this easing of the blockade, are you worried that pressure on Israel to lift the blockade will end?
Shaban: This seems to be the Israeli strategy. Israel wants to make cosmetic changes to the siege to convey a message to the international community that the situation is different. This will ease the pressure on Israel. People need to understand that at the end of the day, the siege remains, even if in a different form.
bitterlemons: So how can Palestinians work to maintain pressure on Israel?
Shaban: Palestinians need to continue to talk about the siege, but they have to broaden the concept. There is a problem in the Palestinian narrative that when we talk about the siege we follow the Israeli narrative and limit the concept to food. But people need to understand that the boycott is about everything, about the freedom to travel and work. People don't only have a need for food, they have a need for education, entertainment and culture.
bitterlemons: What is Egypt's role in the boycott?
Shaban: Egypt is in the middle. Cairo can't open Rafah completely, because it is a signatory, with the US and Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, to the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. On the other hand, 1.5 million people in Gaza see Egypt as the only point of access to the rest of the world. Cairo is trying to find a balance, but it is in a dilemma: it can't open Rafah and it can't close it.
bitterlemons: How important is Palestinian unity in any attempt at sending an effective message?
Shaban: It's very important, but some people don't see it that way. Some are looking at this from a very narrow perspective, whether in Gaza or Ramallah, and it is hard to see where reconciliation will come from any time soon.- Published 28/6/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Omar Shaban is head of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a Gaza based think-tank.
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