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Suddenly, "lift the siege" becomes "ease the siege"

In the wake of Israel's assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the international community called for the siege of Gaza to be lifted. US President Obama called it "unsustainable" while others have been more forthright. A spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Christopher Gunness speaking on the BBC's Radio 5 breakfast programme today, 14 June, was quite clear that the siege is "illegal" and it has created a "humanitarian catastrophe". UNRWA schools and its main warehouse were attacked by Israel, using white phosphorus bombs in contravention of international law, during last year's invasion of Gaza. In a statement issued today, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the blockade "constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law." That collective punishment affects 1.5 million people in Gaza, half of whom, as Mr. Gunness reminded Radio 5's listeners, are children.


The possibility of "relaxing" or "easing" the blockade will be discussed by EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Luxembourg today. Tony Blair has been invited to attend by Cathy Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief. Spain has the current EU presidency, and the Spanish Prime Minister has called for "a strong joint EU position on the siege". José Luis Zapatero has said his foreign minister will argue at the meeting for "an end" to the blockade.

However, despite this sudden realisation on the part of the US and EU in particular of the need to do something about the blockade, prompted in no small part by Israel's killing of nine civilians on the aid convoy and the wounding of dozens more, talk of the blockade and siege being "lifted" has now turned to it being "eased", keeping the people of Gaza under the occupation thumb of Israel.

According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claims,"The principle guiding our policy is clear: to prevent war material from entering Gaza and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid and non-contraband goods." This suggests that his government will be open to Quartet envoy Tony Blair's proposal to have a list of "prohibited goods" rather than a list of "allowed" goods, making it easier to control what is forbidden and allow through everything else. Security remains Israel's main priority and this stance is endorsed by Mr. Blair, who told Haaretz newspaper, "When it comes to security, I'm 100 percent on Israel's side. Israel has the right to inspect what goes into Gaza." Beatrice Megevand-Roggo disagrees. The ICRC head of operations for the Middle East said, "Israel's right to deal with its legitimate security concerns must be balanced against the Palestinians' right to live normal, dignified lives." The ex-prime minister's views on the right of the Palestinians of Gaza to be secure and inspect what arms and military hardware enter Israel are not known.

Tony Blair believes that progress is difficult "when Hamas are still prepared to say 'we don't give up the use of violence …'." It thus appears to have escaped his notice that it is Israel which has been killing Palestinians and their supporters, notably during the hijacking of the aid flotilla and during the invasion of Gaza in January 2009 when more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed by Israel, one-third of them children. Perhaps the Quartet envoy would like to comment on that beyond the usual "the loss of life is regrettable" platitudes. Nevertheless, Mr. Blair has told the Daily Telegraph, "For people like myself it would be far better if we were engaging with Hamas constructively", which suggests that some progress might have been made behind the scenes on Palestinian reconciliation and the inclusion of Hamas in future talks.

While there are, of course, pressing humanitarian reasons why aid should be allowed into Gaza without restriction, and with haste, aid agencies worried about the devastation of Gaza's economy are warning that their help can only ever be a temporary solution and more must be done to revive the economy to wean Palestinians off a dependency culture. According to Oxfam's policy director, Phil Bloomer, quoted in the Guardian, "Without a full lifting of the blockade [Gaza's economy] will continue on a downward spiral." Netanyahu is "reluctant" to consider this, fearing that it will give Hamas a propaganda victory.

Observers are pointing out that the latest procrastination by the international community about whether to lift the siege completely or simply ease it is intended to give the Israeli government a way out of the blockade "without losing face". According to one London-based analyst, a clear examination of the pronouncements coming out of Israel suggests that the potential involvement of the international community in "policing the flow of goods into Gaza" provides a degree of international cover and give's Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing government a "softer" image at a time when its policies have faced severe criticism at home and abroad. The same analyst asked, "If such an international presence has not been necessary for Israel to allow limited supplies into Gaza, why should it suddenly be necessary now, if not to give an international veneer to a process that still means the Palestinians will be subject to Israeli control over what they can and cannot buy and sell?"

MEMO believes that only a full lifting of the blockade of Gaza will end what Judge Richard Goldstone described last year as "a possible crime against humanity". Until and unless international laws and conventions are applied to this impasse, and adhered to by the occupying power, Israel, such a crime will continue, as will the pressure for those responsible to be brought to justice. If the siege of Gaza was "unsustainable" just a few short days ago, nothing of substance has changed in the intervening period which makes it sustainable in any form today; it must be ended without delay.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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