As MV Rachel Corrie draws nearer, Israel mulls easing Gaza blockade

After a week of intense international criticism for its raid on the Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla,' a senior Israeli official told the Monitor the government may ease the blockade that the MV Rachel Corrie is now drawing fresh attention to.

By , Staff writer

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    In this May 12 file photo, Derek Graham uses a bottle of Palestinian olive oil to officially name the cargo ship the MV Rachel Corrie, named after a human rights activist killed by the Israeli military, before it departed from Dundalk, Ireland, for the Middle East with a cargo of cement and supplies for Gaza.
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The MV Rachel Corrie, carrying another group of pro-Palestinian activists seeking to challenge the Gaza blockade, sailed toward a possible clash with Israel in the Mediterranean on Friday. But Israel said it had no desire for a fresh confrontation five days after an Israeli commando raid on the "Freedom Flotilla" resulted in skirmishes with activists wielding metal rods, clubs, and knives. Nine activists were killed.

"We have no desire for a confrontation,'' read a statement by Israel's Foreign Ministry, though Israeli leaders said the country would continue to enforce a naval blockade. "We have no desire to board the ship.''

Israel has come under intense international pressure to ease a three-year blockade on Gaza after Israeli navy's fatal raid on the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying the bulk of the flotilla's activists and 10,000 tons of aid. A senior US official was quoted in The New York Times as saying not only the US, but Israel, too, has realized that the Gaza blockade has become untenable. Now, as a possible fresh showdown looms, Israel is considering relaxing its restrictions on goods passing into the Gaza Strip.

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A senior Israeli official who requested anonymity said that Israel would continue inspect all sea cargo for weapons bound for Hamas, but "we also want to facilitate the transfer of civilian goods to the people of the Gaza Strip. We are currently exploring additional ways to achieve these goals.''

Global support strengthens domestic critics of blockade

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated this week that the blockade is necessary to prevent Iran from establishing a Gaza port through which it can arm Hamas, while opposition leader Tzipi Livni – who was foreign minister when the blockade was imposed in 2007 – says it's meant to pressure Hamas into renouncing violence.

But the intensified foreign calls against the blockade in the wake of Israel's flotilla raid has strengthened domestic critics who had already been arguing for a rethink of Israel's three-year-old policy. Under the policy, only humanitarian food and medical supplies – less than what the UN recommends – are allowed into Gaza.

Yossi Alpher, former adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, says that Monday's raid takeover is evidence of his claim that Israel needs to define a new strategy for dealing with Gaza's Hamas-controlled government. He says the blockade is backfiring, and the so-called quartet of peace process mediators – the US, Britain, Russia, and the United Nations – need to realize that.

"I would hope it would bring about the realization among Israel, Egypt, and the Quartet that this policy is counterproductive and a failure,'' says Mr. Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian commentary forum Bitterlemons.org. "It's time to look to see if a more productive strategy can be found.''

'Smarter' sanctions needed – former general

Critics such as Alpher argue that the Gaza blockade strengthens Hamas by putting it in control of an underground economy routed through smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border, while wreaking havoc on members of Gaza's middle and working classes. They argue that Hamas has been able to build up military capabilities despite the blockade.

But other say the problem is not sanctions in general, but how they have been applied.

"I think that sanctions should be smarter, and directed at Hamas, rather than so broad and unselective," says Shlomo Brom, a former general and head of the IDF's strategic planning branch.

The blockade has been in force since Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007, ousting their secular Fatah rivals in violent clashes. Egypt has largely supported the blockade, keeping its border with the territory mostly closed. But this week it opened its Rafah crossing to humanitarian aid for an indefinite period of time.

Writing in the center-left Haaretz newspaper, columnist Aluf Ben called on Israel to complete its withdrawal from Gaza by sealing its border and stopping the transfer of goods to the coastal strip, shifting responsibility to Egypt.

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