Following a two-day meeting of its security cabinet, Israel has announced that it will "ease" the crippling blockade it has maintained against the Gaza Strip for almost four years. In a statement released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, the Israeli government has proposed to "liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza… expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision" and "continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war material."
This decision comes hot on the heels of Israel's brutal attack on the humanitarian aid ship, the Mavi Marmara, in international waters as it attempted to break the naval blockade and deliver its cargo. The murderous assault, which saw nine unarmed Turkish peace activists killed by Israeli commandos, prompted global outrage and condemnation, which has been re-focussed quickly into concerted efforts and pressure to bring the illegal blockade to a long-overdue end.
Domestic calls for a reassessment of the government's policy on the blockade came initially from Israel's Welfare Minister, Isaac Herzog, who said that the time had "come to do away with the blockade, ease the restrictions on the inhabitants and find an alternative."
However, given that the limited proposals to "ease" the blockade took the Israeli cabinet two-days to deliberate, Herzog represents a dissenting minority, and it may be assumed that not only does Israel have no imminent intentions of ending the siege, but also the proposals do not have the support of key senior ministers. Rather, they are a measure used in response to growing criticism and pressure which, it is hoped, will itself be eased by the less rigid blockade, while maintaining its purpose a means to prevent Hamas from receiving arms while pushing for the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Moreover, the official Israeli position maintains that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza while a government spokesperson claimed recently that Israel had always been willing to be flexible with regard to the amount and type of aid allowed into Gaza, which is blatantly not true.
The EU has a key role to play in exerting pressure on Israel, particularly given its economic leverage as one of its key trading partners. However, the message coming out of Brussels is far from clear. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has asserted that the EU is fully equipped and willing to institute a policy to end the siege. He also confirmed that they have spoken with Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian authorities as well as all those in a position to change the situation in Gaza. It now appears, though, that the EU is standing back and limiting its involvement to an offer to control certain routes in and out of the Gaza Strip, acting more or less as unpaid customs and excise officers. According to Tony Blair, the EU's readiness to ease the blockade exists in principle and only in accordance with Israel's willingness to change its policies while EU foreign Policy Chief, Catherine Ashton, has stated that the EU will support Israel's stated aims.
Does this mean that Israel's proposals, which in real terms do not represent any kind of breakthrough or shift in policy whatsoever, will not be challenged? How will the "liberalisation" of "the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza" pan out in reality? Perhaps the privately-held, constantly changing list of goods approved by Israel will be made public, but will it now allow the entry of baby milk formula? Will Palestinians only be allowed to rebuild their bombed out houses under international supervision, and what exactly constitutes "war material"? When Israel says it will "continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons", what does this mean? In reality, the proposals simply play on words and extend the status quo.
It is essential that Israel is prevented from using these proposals as a media coup to divert attention from the real issues and realign the discourse in their own favour yet again. Despite the no doubt welcome intention to allow more goods into Gaza, this cannot be allowed to put a human face on the immoral and illegal Israeli blockade. By obtaining international consent to "ease" the siege, Israel is being allowed to modify perceptions of what is widely and correctly considered the largest prison on the planet, so as to conceal its true nature. The human cost of the siege on Gaza is so far reaching it will probably never be known fully. Denied decent lives in their own country and fenced in by walls, Israeli naval gunboats at sea and unmanned drones overhead, numerous Palestinians have died as a consequence of being denied access to medical treatment while thousands of children suffer from malnutrition and have stunted growth. The people of Gaza are entitled to live normal lives; they have a right to the unfettered movement of people and goods in and out of the territory and nothing short of a full lifting of the siege will ever be acceptable. Respected human rights organisations such as Amnesty International call for a full lifting of the siege for Israel to comply with international law. Partial illegal activity is, after all, still illegal activity.
Since its attack on the Mavi Marmara, Israel and its advocates have been fighting an uphill struggle for acceptance of their carefully edited – and allegedly forged narrative of the events that took place on the high seas. But based on growing global condemnation, underscored by a widening Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, it is obvious that they are failing miserably. The Israeli reaction to the atrocity, which ranged from an outright rejection of calls for international commission of inquiry, efforts to discredit the victims and the circulation of satirical video clips, highlighted an unparalleled arrogance and contempt for the international community and global opinion. Moreover, while the Israel government appears to be aware of the importance and impact of narrative in shaping contemporary international relations, it seems to be unable to grasp just how far the tide has turned.
The blockade on Gaza has been described by the International Crisis Group as "morally appalling and politically self-defeating". The EU's current position makes it complicit in these outrageously immoral and illegal activities and it is time for Europe to "act with real rather than rhetorical courage". Nine Turkish peace activists paid with their lives to see the siege brought to an end. Rather than serving as a deterrent, Israel's aggression has lit a spark and united people of conscience across the globe, in their ships, behind the Palestinian cause. The international community, particularly the UN and the EU, need to act now to do far more in representing the will of the people of the world, to ensure that the siege is lifted fully and force Israel to abide by international law.