After Gaza flotilla raid, Israel close to easing Gaza blockade

An Israeli cabinet meeting on easing the Gaza blockade broke up without a decision today. But it appears the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla raid is forcing Israel to dramatically alter its approach to the Hamas-run enclave.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Israeli soldiers in a jeep, patrol as a Palestinian national flag is set up by protesters near the border line with Israel, during a weekly protest march against Israel's closure of Gaza, in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday. After the Gaza flotilla raid, Israel has come under international pressure to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli cabinet ended a meeting to discuss abandoning a three-year-old economic blockade of the Gaza Strip without a decision on Wednesday, deferring action until tomorrow even as most signs point to a significant easing of Israeli restrictions on imports of foodstuffs and construction materials into the impoverished Hamas-run territory.

Israel's looming about face on a policy that is popular with its citizens appears to be a response to the Jewish state's diplomatic isolation since an Israeli commando raid left nine Turkish citizens dead on a flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Diplomatic prodding from Israeli allies appears to be shifting a policy which few Israelis questioned publicly even in the initial days after the May 31 shooting of the pro-Palestinian activists on the Gaza flotilla.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

"It's especially the pressure of those who are considered to be our friends, like the US,'' says Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "The [blockade] rules were not logical or coherent… People continued with the rules of the game that seemed to work, but now everything was reopened because the flotilla was a catalyst. It doesn't look too good, I agree.''

The raid put relations with Turkey, once one of Israeli's best friends in the region, into a deep freeze and drawn calls from the European Union for an immediate end to the blockade. The US position has been more supportive of Israel, but US officials have also urged Israel to reduce restrictions on the flow of goods into Gaza. Meir Dagan, head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, warned parliament's defense and foreign affairs committee earlier this month that "Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden."

Instead of a blanket ban on imports that included fresh meat while allowing enough food to flow through to prevent widespread hunger, Israel is expected to allow most goods come in save for a list of products which could have military applications.

The move could release the chokehold from an economy that suffers from 44 percent unemployment and 80 percent aid dependency, according the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Did the flotilla win?

In the days following the flotilla raid, Israeli officials warned against concessions, saying that might be interpreted as a political victory for Hamas and its supporter, Iran. Flotilla organizers said their intent was to shed light on what they termed a form of collective punishment on Gaza's residents for their support of Hamas in 2006 Palestinian elections, in the hopes that Israel's policy would change.

Now, even conservative politicians in Israel acknowledge the economic blockade has backfired, hurting Gaza's working poor and middle class while leaving Hamas firmly in control and damaging Israel's international standing.

"The closure in its current form is not a great success. We've just made Coca Cola more expensive,'' says Ayreh Eldad, a parliament member from the far-right National Union Party. "I don't see any use in saying... you can't bring in herbs or vegetables." He said restrictions should be imposed only on potential military equipment.

Mr. Eldad said he does not, however, support lifting the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued two weeks ago that such a move would result in creation of an Iranian port in Gaza that could threaten Europe.

The new border regime was reportedly drawn up in talks between Israel and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is the envoy of the "Quartet'' of international sponsors of the Arab Israeli peace process.

Government action would put the government at odds with prevailing public opinion. A recent survey found that 71 percent of Israeli Jews said the siege on Gaza should not be lifted, according to a poll last week by the conservative daily newspaper, Israel Hayom.

Diplomatic reality

"Israeli politicians are finally awakening to the reality that world public opinion is an integral part of public diplomacy, and without it Israel is up the creek without a paddle,'' says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster. "Israel is starting to feel very isolated, and Israelis don't like that feeling.''

Israel is also believed to be mulling proposals for international monitors to participate in supervision of its borders with Palestinian territories, though it isn't clear which crossings are being considered.

The debate in Israel over the future of the economic blockade stirred up tensions with Egypt, a partner in the blockade. Earlier this week, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said Israel should completely shut off all links with Gaza and encourage Egypt to build a commercial crossing on its border with Gaza and provide water and electricity currently supplied by Israel.

That triggered a curt statement from the Egyptian foreign ministry: "There is an Israeli official thought which aims at renouncing its responsibility towards the Gaza Strip and dumping it on Egypt….Which is a matter that Egypt totally rejects.''

Though Egypt opened its civilian crossing with Gaza partially in the wake of the flotilla, most Gazans still can't leave and enter the territory at the Rafah border. Despite criticism in the Arab world, Egypt and Israel share a common interest in pressuring Hamas, an affiliate of the Egyptian opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel responded that Katz's comment doesn't reflect the position of the government.


IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

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