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Turkey must hold fast to its demand for Israel to ease the blockade of Gaza

February 23, 2016 at 5:31 pm

Turkey must hold fast to its demand for Israel to ease the blockade of Gaza

Dr Daud Abdullah

In recent days, attempts by Israel and Turkey to normalise relations have reached a critical stage. After years of dithering, Israel has finally agreed to two of Turkey’s three demands: to pay compensation for the unlawful killing of nine Turkish nationals on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 (a tenth citizen died in 2014 of the injuries sustained during the attack), and offer an apology. However, the third demand, which is for Israel to “ease” the blockade of the Gaza Strip, remains unsettled largely because of intransigence on the part of the Israeli government and also because it lacks the support of key regional and global powers.

Since the start of its military occupation, Israel has always struggled to impose its authority over the Gaza Strip. The blockade that was imposed almost 10 years ago was as much a blow against the enclave’s civilian population as it was against the stated target of the blockade, the Islamic Resistance Movement — Hamas. Today, the stand-off is no longer simply between the occupier and the occupied; other stakeholders have emerged, including Egypt, Turkey and even Russia. Any formula that seeks to end or “ease” the blockade must bridge the gap between their competing and conflicting interests.

As for the two main adversaries, Israel and Hamas, there is clearly no appetite or desire for another war; at least not for now. In fact, there appears to be a growing belief within the senior ranks of the Israeli army that there is no way to resolve the conflict with Hamas through military means, and the best that can be done in the circumstance is to ease tensions and avoid another destructive offensive.

The prevailing concern is that a failure to address the humanitarian situation in the enclave will, sooner or later, lead to hostilities that would be far worse than all the previous wars combined. Hence, the Israeli military is proposing to establish a viable seaport for the Gaza Strip as one way to “ease” the siege and allow the passage of people and goods to re-build links with the outside world.

In reality, the idea of a seaport is nothing new. After the 2014 war, Hamas demanded the establishment of a seaport and airport during the ceasefire negotiations. Both facilities are pivotal for the reconstruction and economic transformation of the Gaza Strip. This much was conveyed by a high-level Turkish trade delegation to Gaza earlier this month.

The mere fact that Turkey and Israel are discussing the blockade is in itself a mark of progress. Without disclosing any details, the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau and former elected Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said last week that significant ground has been covered. That may be so, but there is no doubt that a lot still remains to be done before the blockade is “eased”, let alone lifted altogether. Overcoming the various interlocking political obstacles will not be easy.

Despite the best advice of its military advisers, the Israeli government still remains sceptical about the seaport proposal. In order to avoid any commitment at this stage it has said that it will not proceed without the agreement of Egypt. This is not just Israeli shirking its responsibility; it is also an attempt to throw a spanner in the works.

Given the poor relations between Ankara and Cairo, it is unlikely that the latter would agree readily to a seaport for Gaza. Regional analysts believe that the Sisi regime would only do so if it is pressured. Saudi Arabia, they note, is best positioned to exert this level of political pressure for two reasons: Egypt’s dependency on its financial backing and Saudi’s close ties with Turkey.

Even if it did relent, the Sisi regime will almost certainly be subjected to similar, but opposing, pressure from another source — Russia — with whom it also has good relations. As it is currently doing in Syria, Russia will use all its influence and power to prevent Turkey from playing any decisive role in other parts of the region, not least in Gaza.

Without an end to the Israeli-led blockade and establishment of a fully functioning port, it will take, according to Oxfam, more than 70 years to rebuild the homes destroyed by Israel in the Gaza Strip. The current negotiations between Turkey and Israel should be regarded as the first step towards ending the unjust siege.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the negotiations will succeed or result in any meaningful steps with regards to Gaza. With so many parties vying to secure their own narrow interests, progress will be painfully slow. One thing that is obvious from the diplomatic twists and turns is that normalisation of relations with Israel must come with a price. In the case of Gaza, that price has to be an end to the blockade and military occupation. If Turkey can achieve this, it will have done the Palestinians a great service, and brought a genuine peace one step closer; it must hold fast to its demand.

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