June 06, 2011 Edition 15 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Revisiting the Gaza blockade
A radicalizing factor  - Ghassan Khatib
It affects not only Gazans, but also the future solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Time to try a new option  - Yossi Alpher
Neither Egypt nor the PLO, both of which now deal openly with Hamas, could object to being outflanked by Israel.

Israel bears responsibility  - Issam Younis
Israeli claims that it has eased the siege on the Gaza Strip are false.

Weakening the chances for peace  - Ephraim Sneh
Hamas, like the Israeli political right, is the irreconcilable enemy of a two-state peace agreement.

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A radicalizing factor
 Ghassan Khatib
The recent developments in Egypt that led to changes in the Egyptian regime, together with the reconciliation of Fateh and Hamas, have once again brought to the surface the Israeli blockade of Gaza and possible ways of lifting it. The most recent illustration of this was Egypt's decision to open the Rafah crossing with Gaza to travelers, which seemed to be an incentive for Gaza's rulers, Hamas, to proceed with the reconciliation pact.

There are many reasons why Egypt moved actively in this direction, including the Egyptian need for dealings with Gaza Palestinians that meet the minimal requirements of brotherly relations and humanitarian demands. In Egypt, a new reality reigns where public opinion is highly respected by the government.

At the same time, the Egyptian government wanted to be politically correct. Israel sought, through its closure of Gaza, to separate the Strip from the West Bank and shift its dependence from Israel to Egypt. This way, Israel could serve its demographic needs, on one hand, and its strategic objectives of preventing a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, on the other. The only way for Egypt to meet its humanitarian and political interests, therefore, was to open up Rafah crossing to Gazans within the framework of the reconciliation agreement.

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the opening of Rafah crossing for Palestinians in Gaza, while at the same time reminding everyone of the need to respect the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access which obliges Israel to open up the other crossings to Gaza as well as ensure free movement for Palestinians and products between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel's ongoing blockade of Gaza, which has been subject to criticism and condemnation from all sides, has been responsible for many far-reaching negative consequences. These affect not only Gazans, but also the future solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The blockade has been responsible for economic hardship, which in turn contributes to political and ideological radicalization in Gazan society. It has also had socio-economic structural effects, weakening individuals and social strata that had played a leading role in the economy and society in favor of new powerful individuals and social forces that benefitted from the "economy of tunnels", i.e., those people that Hamas has allowed to control the movement of commodities into Gaza through illegal tunnels linked with the Sinai in Egypt.

Most international agencies, especially those of the United Nations working in the occupied territories, have called upon Israel to end this blockade for both political and humanitarian reasons. The reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas, which is supposed to produce a new technocrat government comprised of independent professionals affiliated with neither movement, is a golden opportunity for everybody, including Israel, to end this blockade and allow the new government to ensure the flow of products and passengers between the West Bank and Gaza, and from the occupied territories abroad.

Such changes would create a situation more conducive to the creation of a Palestinian state and the two-state solution and, at the same time, would stop the process of radicalization underway among Palestinians in Gaza.-Published 6/6/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Time to try a new option
 Yossi Alpher
The partial opening of the Rafah crossing by Egypt's military rulers, coupled with the anticipation of another Turkish-led naval flotilla seeking to breach the Gaza blockade, provide a timely opportunity to review the logic of Israel's restrictions on movement into and out of the Strip. The Egyptian move also raises the issue of Gaza's future relationship with Egypt, Israel and the West Bank.

There was never any compelling strategic logic behind Israel's refusal to allow civilian goods into Gaza. The idea of punishing 1.5 million Gazans so that they would remove Hamas from power was pointless and counterproductive: it impoverished the Gazan farmers and industrialists--the people with the most interest in cooperative economic relations with Israel--and empowered tunnel-diggers and others who enjoyed close relations with Hamas. It also gave Israel a bad name. And it had no effect at all on Hamas' readiness to release Gilad Shalit for a reasonable price. In this sense, the only good thing that came out of last spring's Turkish flotilla was Israel's relaxation of that boycott.

But preventing the entry by land of dual-use items and maintaining a naval and air blockade make sense. Israel has enough problems with Hamas' aggression against Israeli civilians without allowing it to augment its arsenal of weapons. Egypt has until now cooperated closely with Israel's military (and economic) boycott efforts, though without having to pay a price in terms of international condemnation. The opening of the Rafah crossing does not appear to violate Egypt's own rules for restricting the entry of weaponry and terrorists: there will continue to be limited passage through the tunnels and virtually none through the actual land-crossing. Egypt's military rulers will continue to cooperate with the Israel Defense Forces regarding Sinai and Gaza security; the border opening is a relatively symbolic gesture toward the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose loyalty the military rulers are cultivating.

In other words, the Egyptian military wants Gaza and Hamas to continue to be Israel's problem--militarily, politically and economically. It will, as with past instances, be prepared to off-load the next Turkish blockade-breaching flotilla at El-Arish and transport the goods to Gaza by land. But that is not likely to happen, insofar as the flotilla organizers seek not the well-being of Gazans but rather once again to de-legitimize and isolate Israel, with Gaza as the excuse.

What, then, should Israel do about Gaza and Hamas, particularly in view of the Egyptian-sponsored Hamas-Fateh reconciliation agreement that poses the specter of closer coordination between the West Bank and Gaza? There appear to be three alternative options.

One is the status quo: muddling through with a partial blockade, withstanding flotillas and international pressure, threatening to break or weaken ties with the PLO and Palestinian Authority if Hamas as currently constituted (rejecting the Quartet's three conditions) is integrated into them, and refusing to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas. This promises more isolation and international anger but, barring some major strategic disaster, allows Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to achieve his primary objective of political survival. It is no more likely to bring down Hamas and restore PLO rule in Gaza than any of the abortive measures Israel has adopted thus far.

A second option is radical: seal the Gaza-Israel land border, open its naval and air boundaries and challenge Egypt to deal with the problem of an Islamist entity on the two countries' border. This, in effect, generates a "three-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--not necessarily the worst outcome from Israel's standpoint. But it is liable to muddy Egyptian-Israeli relations at a critical moment and to inflate Gaza into a pro-Iranian Islamist fortress, armed to the teeth, on the shores of the Mediterranean.

A third option, also radical, is to offer to relax the blockade to the maximum without incurring military dangers and to accept Hamas as an enemy Israel has to try to talk to without political preconditions, as long as Hamas maintains a ceasefire and returns Gilad Shalit for a reasonable price. Neither Egypt nor the PLO, both of which now deal openly with Hamas, could object to in effect being outflanked by Israel. This option, too, could conceivably generate or perpetuate a three-state reality. Prior coordination could seek to ensure Quartet backing; in any case, the Russians and some Europeans are already engaging Hamas or moving in that direction. This would be particularly needed if the Israeli opening leads nowhere, Hamas does not reciprocate, and restrictions on Gaza are re-imposed.

Under the circumstances, the third option is worth considering.-Published 6/6/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Israel bears responsibility
 Issam Younis
Since 1967, Israel has controlled the movement of individuals and goods in the Gaza Strip through force, military orders, and executive measures and policies. This "over-control" has only served the interests of Israel, connecting the Israeli economy to the Gaza Strip through its six crossings.

The Oslo accords signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government asserted the territorial unity of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Israeli actions implemented the exact opposite. In the last 10 years, Israel has sought to push responsibility for the Gaza Strip towards Egypt, completely absolving itself. Indeed, the rule in the relationship between Israel and Gaza has been "closure"--and the exception has been its partial easing.

Since the take-over of Gaza by Hamas in June 2007, Israel (supported by the Quartet conditions) has imposed an unprecedented and complete blockade on the territory. It suspended the customs code of the Gaza Strip and prevented the entry of raw materials needed for industry.

This has turned the Gaza Strip issue, which is basically political, into a humanitarian one. The Israeli siege imposed on the Gaza Strip has led to a serious deterioration in humanitarian conditions. About 85 percent of Palestinian families in Gaza directly depend on aid, particularly that provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Because the international community refuses to deal with the de facto government in the Gaza Strip, UNRWA has expanded its work, taking over that role. Meanwhile, the international community continues to "handle" the humanitarian crisis in Gaza without dealing with the root causes of that crisis.

Following last year's international condemnation of Israel's attack on the Freedom Flotilla fleet carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, criticism of Israel's actions has veered towards the demand to ease the siege. Israel subsequently allowed the entry of some commodities to Gaza, while preventing the entry of others--particularly construction materials--under the pretext of security. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, however, those commodities allowed into Gaza did not result in a significant improvement in people's livelihood, depleted over three years of tight blockade. The unemployment rate in Gaza decreased by less than two percentage points (from 39.3 to 37.4 percent), remaining one of the highest in the world. Coupled with a significant rise in food prices, this minor improvement in employment has had little or no impact on the high rates of food insecurity prevailing throughout Gaza (affecting 52 percent of the population). Despite the flow of some goods, the lack of Gazan purchasing power hinders utilizing them.

Moreover, tens of thousands of families whose houses were destroyed by Israeli forces continue to suffer from the lack of construction materials and the inability to rebuild. The Gaza Strip needs the construction of approximately 40,000 houses as over 21,000 people remain displaced after the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip codenamed "Operation Cast Lead". Two years later, tens of thousands of Gaza residents continue to live a life of displacement.

More than 25 jobs such as smithery, carpentry and so on are directly related to these absent construction materials. The entry of construction materials would mean a decline in unemployment.

Israel claims that it prevents the entry of construction materials because it is afraid they will be used by armed groups to build tunnels and fortifications. By that rationale, Israel should prevent the entry of medicine, food, and milk because a "terrorist" might consume them.

The movement of individuals is still very limited. The travel of individuals from the Gaza Strip through Israeli crossings is subject to a tight system of permits that are issued to a very limited number of patients and businessmen. According to OCHA, an insignificant increase was recorded in the volume of people travelling through the Erez crossing in the second half of 2010 compared to the previous half--from 106 to 114 persons a day.

Thus, Israeli claims that it has eased the siege on the Gaza Strip are false, as it has not mitigated the humanitarian crisis. The international community must intervene and take effective actions to bring about an end to this illegal blockade, exerting pressure on Israel to uphold its responsibilities under international law.

The Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is a vital entry and exit route, but it is not more important than the other six crossings that connect the Gaza Strip with the State of Israel. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is created by the Israeli occupation through its siege and blockade. The Gaza Strip must be dealt with as a political issue, not a humanitarian one, and Israel must be made to uphold its responsibilities to it.-Published 6/6/2011 ©

Issam Younis is director of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza City.

Weakening the chances for peace
 Ephraim Sneh
Applying the term "blockade" to the Gaza Strip involves not a little hypocrisy. It ignores both the nature of the regime there and what that regime has done in Gaza in its four years in power.

Prior to June 2007, there was no "blockade" of Gaza. I served then as Israel's deputy minister of defense with responsibility for links with the Strip. Even though Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh served as Palestinian prime minister, around 750 trucks loaded with a variety of goods entered and departed Gaza every day. It was sufficient that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Presidential Guard was responsible for the border crossings with Israel. Agricultural exports from Gaza rose dramatically during this period.

Even before June 2007, Hamas would attack and try to blow up the commercial border crossings. But it was Hamas' brutal coup d'etat in Gaza that led to the isolation of the Strip. When an organization that advocates the ideology of jihad and applies that ideology by launching thousands of rockets and missiles against Israel's civilian population controls the territory of the Strip, it cannot expect to enjoy Scandinavian-style freedom of movement.

Hamas' rule in Gaza is internally brutal and oppressive no less than it is externally aggressive. Political opposition, in this case Fateh, is forbidden, and harsh Islamist codes are imposed on the population. It's no surprise that most of the leaders of Gazan Fateh are in Ramallah with their families.

The significance of Egypt's opening of the Rafah border crossing is symbolic and political. First and foremost, it signals Egyptian legitimization of Hamas' rule in Gaza. Cairo's decision to open the crossing reflects the growing influence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement in post-Mubarak Egypt. It is an expression of the quiet alliance that has been formed between the Brotherhood and Egypt's military rulers with the aim of weakening and marginalizing the secular liberal opposition. The opening of the Rafah crossing, even if few Gazan residents actually cross, reduces pressures within the isolated Gazan population. The public credit is claimed by the two sister organizations: Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The economic significance of the Rafah opening is negligible. It is mainly linked to the money earned by Gazans working in the Gulf who can now visit their families with up to $10,000 worth of the fruits of their labors, a bit of which they'll spend in Egypt en route. In economic terms, the Rafah crossing is a gate linking a little basket case to a large basket case. A link between an economy in which the per capita GDP is about $1,000 and one where it is around $3,000 cannot be expected to bring prosperity to the former.

Gaza's basic economic problem, with its 1.5 million residents, is its detachment from the Israeli economy. Israel is Gaza's natural economic neighbor--even if many in both Israel and Palestine don't like to hear it. A crate of Gazan strawberries sold in Tel Aviv brings the Gazan farmer a price several times higher than in Port Said. The same goes for industrial products. But commerce with Israel, where the per capita GDP is close to $30,000, is not just a Palestinian interest. The benefits of trade go both ways. The Israeli economy cannot forego a market of 1.5 million consumers; it has an interest in increasing their buying power. When, from time to time, the commercial passages to Gaza were closed for security reasons, it was the Israeli farmers and suppliers of raw materials who asked to reopen them.

Not only commerce creates an unbreakable link between Israel and Gaza. There is a mutual interdependence concerning the environment, public health, water and energy. For example, there is no more efficient way to exploit Gaza's offshore natural gas reserves, worth some five billion dollars, than through joint development with Israeli gas companies. Currently, this resource remains under the Mediterranean Sea, unexploited.

The Gaza Strip has a large economic potential in labor-intensive and knowledge-based industry, tourism, transportation and energy. This potential can only be realized through a two-state peace agreement. Hamas, like the Israeli political right, is the irreconcilable enemy of such an agreement. Every act that strengthens Hamas weakens the chances for peace. That is how we must judge the opening, however limited, of the Rafah crossing.-Published 6/6/2011 ©

Ephraim Sneh, a retired IDF general, served in Israeli governments as minister of health, minister of transportation and deputy minister of defense. He is currently chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College.