Focus back on Gaza

Arabs and many others have been venting their fury over Israel’s violent interception of the Gaza freedom flotilla. The United Nations Security Council’s call for a full investigation into the fatal maritime assault is one early achievement. But the larger and longer-term question is whether there will now be any change for the 1,5-million Palestinians living under blockade in the crowded coastal strip. Will policy shift?

Calls for an easing of Gaza’s siege have been made many times before, to little effect. The UN calls it “counterproductive and unacceptable”. A statement by the European Union and Russia this week demanded the immediate opening of border crossings for humanitarian aid, goods and people. The White House has expressed only “deep regret” about the incident.

Outside Israel and the United States, it is widely acknowledged that the policy of isolating Gaza has failed. Numerous reports by the UN and other agencies have documented deteriorating living conditions, malnutrition and deprivation. Neither Israel nor Egypt, blockading the strip from the south, have paid much attention—until now.

Egypt, evidently embarrassed by accusations of complicity with Israel, announced on Tuesday that it was opening its Rafah border post to send in humanitarian supplies. Normally this happens for just a few days a month; regular access is through a network of tunnels under the border.

Hosni Mubarak’s hostility to Hamas is linked directly to his hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, his principal domestic opponent. He is aware of Egyptian and Arab anger, though the shift looks tactical, not strategic.

Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal paper, predicted that Europe and the US would “not be able to let Israel get away with a mere reprimand”.

Yet it is still hard to imagine much change from the Netanyahu government. After Ariel Sharon abandoned Gaza in 2005, it was subsequently declared a “hostile entity”. One top Israeli official even spoke of “putting Gazans on a diet”.

The blockade flows from Israel’s determination to isolate, undermine and defeat Hamas. Hamas’s formal name—the Islamic Resistance Movement—explains why. It has never recognised Israel, never agreed to negotiate with it and never been formally prepared to renounce violence, nor accept agreements entered into by its Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) rival. Israel also wants the release of Gilad Shalit, a captured soldier Hamas hoped to trade for hundreds of prisoners late last year. It will almost certainly fight tooth and nail to avoid handing the movement the victory that lifting the siege would constitute.

Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, recalled this week that the movement bitterly opposed Yasser Arafat’s Oslo deal with Israel in 1993 and would not go down that path. Meshal may be exaggerating the likelihood of reconciliation with the PLO, though efforts in that direction have been blocked by the US and Israel. Independent Palestinians say that at the very least the Americans should leave them to sort out their divisions.

Still, this is not just about squabbles among the Palestinians and between them and the Israelis. The freedom flotilla clash, like a flash of lightning far out at sea, illuminates a bigger picture. The International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected think tank, pointed out that the policy of building up the PLO in the West Bank, blockading Gaza and isolating Hamas had effectively been endorsed by the US, European Union and the UN.

Of the Middle Eastern Quartet (Russia, the UN, the US and the EU), Russia has broken ranks, with a meeting between President Dmitry Medvedev and Meshal this month.

Condemnation of Israel is relatively easy. The ICG suggested that one practical way to overcome Israeli security objections about Gaza would be a regime of “international end-use monitoring” to ensure that construction materials could not be diverted for non-civilian uses such as building weapons bunkers.

That is detail, though important. The big issue, the ICG argued, is this: “The policy toward Gaza is in need of thorough reexamination. The US, EU and Quartet as a whole have been calling for relaxing the siege on Gaza. That is welcome, but opening the humanitarian tap is not an appropriate answer to a policy whose fundamental premise is morally callous and politically counter-productive.”—

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