June 17, 2010
Israel agreed Thursday to ease its three-year-old land blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, hoping to quell international outrage over its deadly raid on a flotilla bound for the Palestinian territory.
In one of the major changes, Israel will allow in more desperately needed construction materials for civilian projects as long as they are carried out under international supervision. And it will no longer limit what types of food can go in. However, Israel signaled it would maintain its naval blockade meant to keep weapons shipments out of the hands of Hamas militants.
The decision reflected the intense pressure Israeli leaders felt after an international outcry over the May 31 raid on a blockade-busting flotilla. Israeli commandos killed nine pro-Palestinian activists and both sides claimed they acted in self-defense.
"This decision proves the imposed siege failed to oust Hamas from power and did not achieve its objectives, but brought devastating damage to the legitimate Palestinian economy," said 34-year-old Yaser Abdel Baki, owner of a food shop in Gaza City. He said he had lost more than $1 million in the past three years.Israel imposed the blockade in 2007 after Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction, violently seized control of Gaza. It was meant to prevent the Iranian-backed group from arming and to put pressure on it to free a captive Israeli soldier.
"This new policy will not recover my losses," he said.
But it has failed to weaken Hamas or bring the soldier home, while grinding the already impoverished economy to a standstill. The sanctions have cost tens of thousands of jobs, shuttered hundreds of factories, banned exports and prevented Gaza from rebuilding thousands of homes and buildings destroyed in an Israeli military offensive last year. Ordinary Gazans have suffered the most.
Israel's shift came just one week after President Barack Obama, the country's most important ally, said the blockade was unsustainable and called for scaling it back dramatically. Israeli officials said the Cabinet decision was made after consultations with Europe and the U.S., which have both been pressing for changes since the raid.
The international community welcomed the easing, but urged Israel to do more to reopen Gaza's borders and revive its stagnant economy. International Mideast envoy Tony Blair called it "an important step toward easing the lives of Palestinians in Gaza."
He said a system must be reached that prevents weapons from entering Gaza while "allowing into Gaza the items of ordinary daily life." He also said the international community would work with Israel in the coming days to "flesh out the principles now agreed."
Hamas was not satisfied.
"We want a real lifting of the siege, not window-dressing," said Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil.For the most part, the blockade only allowed in basic humanitarian goods for a population of 1.5 million. Israel severely limited goods such as cement and steel, fearing Hamas militants could use them to build weapons and fortifications. It also limited what foods could enter.
"This morning, the government of Israel took decisions to liberalize the system under which civilian goods may enter the Gaza Strip, to expand materials for projects inside Gaza which are under international supervision," government spokesman Mark Regev said. "But of course we must remain with the security procedures that prevent the import into Gaza of weapons and war materials that strengthen the Hamas military machine," he said, indicating the naval blockade would remain in force.While the easing seemed to buy Israel some time with the international community, it appeared unlikely to significantly change the quality of life in Gaza. Most food items prohibited by Israel already came in through smuggling tunnels along the southern border with Egypt.
The government did not mention easing bans on exports or the import of raw materials needed for industry. There was no word on how much construction materials would be allowed in.
Israel has agreed to allow the U.N. to import cement in the past, but in practice permitted only small amounts.
U.N. spokesman Richard Miron said officials would be working with Israel "to learn more" about the decision.
"We continue to seek fundamental change in policy ... so that commercial goods and people are able to flow through functioning open crossings so that reconstruction can take place," he said.There was also no word on whether Israel would ease a border closure that has prevented nearly all Gazans from exiting the area.
Egypt had cooperated for years in the blockade by closing its land border with Gaza. But in another sign that Israel will no longer be able to maintain its stranglehold over Gaza after the flotilla raid, Egypt loosened border controls in the days after the clash.
However, Egypt is only letting in people with special travel permits, such as students and Gazans with foreign passports. In the past two weeks, 10,000 Gazans have crossed into Egypt though many more want to leave. A senior Egyptian security official has said the loosened restrictions will remain in place indefinitely.
In any case, the blockade failed to achieve its aim of stanching the flow of weapons to Gaza. A network of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border became a conduit for both weapons and commercial goods sold at black market prices. Gazans sank deeper into poverty, turning their anger against Israel and not their Hamas rulers.
Blair, who represents the so-called Quartet of international Mideast mediators, said efforts were under way to find a way to reopen Gaza's border crossings with European and Palestinian participation. The EU helped monitor Gaza's southern border with Egypt until Hamas took power in 2007.
In the West Bank, the pro-Western Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas which rivals Hamas' Gaza government, also criticized Israel's decision. Negotiator Saeb Erekat said the closure should be ended altogether.
"The siege is collective punishment and it must be lifted."Privately, however, Abbas' aides have expressed concern that an opening of Gaza's borders would strengthen Hamas at his expense.
Turkey on Thursday threatened not to send its ambassador back to Israel unless it receives an apology for the flotilla raid. Ankara, which withdrew its ambassador immediately after the raid, also wants Israel to agree to an international investigation into the raid and compensate victims, a government official said. The nine people who died in the Israeli raid were Turks.
Israel opposes an international investigation, and has appointed its own panel of legal experts to conduct an inquiry.
And there were other signs that the tensions over the blockade would persist.
Organizers of two blockade-busting ships setting sail from Lebanon said their vessels would leave for Gaza early next week. They said the ships would carry cancer medication, and that 50 women from various religious sects, Arab countries, Europe and the U.S. would be on board.
A senior military official said Israel would stop the vessels. He spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.