Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pressure on Israel to lift Gaza blockade.

Abbas might be against it, if Ha'aretz newspaper are to be believed, but the world is piling the pressure on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza.

Western diplomats are hoping that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, will give the first indication this morning of a major rethink of Gaza policy, under which a wide range of civilian goods would be admitted to start reviving the paralysed commercial life of the besieged territory. The international Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, met Mr Netanyahu for the third time in eight days on Friday to press him to end the heavily restrictive list of "allowed" civilian goods and produce one for those that are to be banned instead, as a first step towards reviving commerce and allowing postwar reconstruction.

The seemingly technical change would have potentially far-reaching consequences since it would require Mr Netanyahu to agree the general authorisation of civilian imports to Gaza – including raw materials needed for manufacturing and subsequent exports – other than those agreed to pose a clear threat to Israel's security.

If the attack on the freedom flotilla did anything, it reminded the world of the dreadfulness of the siege under which the citizens of Gaza are being held. Now the world is putting real pressure on Israel to bring this humanitarian nightmare to an end.

Today's Israeli cabinet meeting comes 24 hours ahead of a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers, three of whom, France's Bernard Kouchner, Italy's Franco Frattini, and Miguel Moratinos of Spain, also called publicly last week for a relaxation of the naval embargo and the reopening of the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel at Karni.

The embargo, imposed after Hamas seized full control of Gaza by force when its coalition with Fatah collapsed in June 2007, has precipitated the virtual collapse of Gaza's once productive private-sector manufacturing industry, decimated agricultural exports, confined the formerly vital fishing industry within a one-mile limit, left 80 per cent of Gazans dependent on food aid, and rendered pointless the vast bulk of the $7.5bn pledged by donor countries for reconstruction after Israel's 2008-2009 military offensive in the territory.

An insight into the plans being worked on by the Quartet (the UN, US, EU and Russia) – which has specifically mandated Mr Blair to conduct the negotiations with Mr Netanyahu – is contained in a draft of the paper authorised for circulation by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in the wake of the flotilla attack, and which describes the three-year-old blockade as "unacceptable and counterproductive". It adds that the blockade "hurts the people of Gaza, holds their future hostage, and undermines work to drive reconstruction, development and economic empowerment. At the same time, the blockade empowers Hamas through the tunnel economy and damages Israel's long-term security through its corrosive impact on a generation of young Palestinians."

The British draft, which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday, stresses that the new approach is "not about rewarding Hamas"; that the Quartet needs to restate its "wider position on Hamas and its concern about Hamas's role in Gaza" and repeats calls for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and other Gaza militants four years ago.

The end to the siege is long overdue. This punishment of the Palestinian people for daring to vote "the wrong way" made a mockery of our supposed desire to export democracy to the rest of the world.

And, of course, the negotiations have included details of just what kind of inquiry will be held into Israel's attack on the freedom flotilla.

The negotiations on the embargo have overlapped with those – especially between Israel and the US – over what form of inquiry should be conducted into the commando raid which halted the flotilla and cost the lives of nine Turks in the fighting aboard the biggest of the boats, the passenger ferry Mavi Marmara. Israel, whose military chief of staff, Gabi Ashekenazi, has appointed Giora Eiland, a reserve general and former head of the national security agency, to head an internal inquiry into the naval operation, has indicated that it will also appoint a former high court judge to head a civilian inquiry. It is not expected that such an inquiry will take testimony from naval special forces personnel who took part in the raid.

While Western governments and Israel have denied any direct linkage between the two issues, diplomats have acknowledged that any expectation that Israel was prepared for a significant relaxation of the Gaza embargo would lessen pressure for a full international inquiry, of the sort proposed by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.

Now, we are told that there is utterly no linkage between these two things. I don't know what planet you would have to live on to believe that.

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