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Gaza flotilla renews debate on Israel's blockade

A flotilla of ships set to leave Greece for Gaza this week is reigniting arguments about the wisdom of Israel's trade restrictions to the Palestinian territory.

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Indeed, Mohammed al-Tilbani, the owner of an ice cream and biscuit factory in Gaza, says that he has been approached recently by US diplomats to see if he is ready to resume ice cream exports to the West Bank. Mr. Tilbani says he already has refrigerator storage in the West Bank from the days that 60 percent of his sales came from selling to Palestinians there.

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Back home in Gaza, his business has been hurt by frequent electricity outages that make it a waste for Palestinians to purchase large quantities of ice cream.

"Many people promised to me: 'Maybe next month you can [resume exporting].' I said, 'I can be ready within one day.' But, I don’t think it’s going to happen," says Tilbani.

According to the IMF report, Israel has agreed to gradually lift restrictions, to permit the sale of textiles and furniture abroad, but sales to the West Bank and Israel will remain tightly controlled.

Building materials restrictions

Regarding imports, most products are now allowed into Gaza – a sea change from a year ago when only imports defined as "humanitarian" were allowed in. Israel justifies its building material restrictions as a security precaution against a Hamas buildup of military infrastructure. At the same time, it says that construction materials are allowed into the tiny coastal strip of 1.5 million for projects for international agencies.

But that policy only allows for about 7 percent of the supplies needed for Gaza’s building industry, says Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that pushes for lifting movement restrictions on Palestinians.

"There have been improvements over the last year, but we’re far from a policy of free movement," she says. Restrictions are still in place "not for security reasons, but rather as a policy of economic pressure, which we consider to be a policy of collective punishment."

Mr. Bashi says Israel also needs to remove restrictions on passage for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza.

Blockade counterproductive?

While Israel’s naval blockade is necessary and legitimate to prevent weapons from reaching Gaza militants, the Jewish state gets little to no benefit from the economic blockade on Gaza, saysYossi Alpher, a former advisor to past Israeli prime ministers.

"The land blockade, which was largely canceled, was totally counterproductive. It just brought us international condemnation," he says.

Israel says the flotilla is a provocation and that supplies can reach Gaza through land routes. Both the US and the UN have also warned of the possibility of a flare up from the flotilla, but have urged Israel to show restraint.

The lifting of the ban on imports gave Gazans access to "basic" products like appliances and plastics, says Sami Abdelshafi, an economic consultant to nonprofit groups in Gaza. But that hasn’t helped put much of a dent in unemployment – forcing Gaza’s residents to continue to depend on public assistance, and the United Nations.

Even the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is propping up the territory, paying tens of thousands of public sector employees who have not worked in government jobs since Hamas’s takeover in 2007.

Though Abdelshafi says the flotilla helps draw attention to Gaza’s problems, he doubts the ability of the challenge to prompt new changes.

"In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it will help the things we desparately need: economic development and job creation, and on the other hand a comprehensive resolution to the political problem," he says. "It's an admired expression of solidarity, but I’m afraid that it may not have a major hand in political resolution. Gaza is not waiting for flotillas."

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