Sherine Tadros, 21 June 2010
What should we make of Israel’s change in strategy towards the Gaza blockade?
It really depends on what you see as the aim - saving face amidst intense international (Turkish and US) pressure or allowing people in Gaza to live a normal life.
Not only is it clear that it is the former not the latter (otherwise why not let people leave the Strip?) but through a change in semantics, Israel has managed to checkmate the world.
In the lead-up to what became Israel’s Freedom Flotilla PR disaster, a debate erupted as to the arbitrary and ambiguous nature with which goods are allowed into Gaza.
In the press conferences I attended days before the flotilla’s arrival, journalists grilled the army on why there was seemingly no logic behind what is let in - one journalist friend of mine remarked that while pasta was sometimes allowed through, gluten-free pasta was disallowed. It didn’t make sense, and more importantly authorities were increasingly finding it hard to explain (and justify) the policy.
With the decision to publish a list of prohibited items (rather than the ever-changing, inconsistent list of allowed goods) should come a debate on what the endgame of the Gaza siege is for Israel.
Former ministers and commentators have blamed Ehud Barak, the defence minister, as well as Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, for this “pasta and coriander” policy, which made a mockery out of the idea of a blockade on what Israel insists are security grounds.
Put these small grumblings aside and Israel has done what Israel does best in defining what “progress” entails on its terms.
The siege on Gaza is illegal under international law – 1.7 million civilians not allowed to exit a plot of land that has become one of the poorest and congested places in the world.
Yet Israel’s decision to allow in a few more types of goods (with caveats) is hailed as progress by an American administration also desperate to start seeing positive signs in this part of the world.
Maybe this is a sceptical point of view, maybe we should see this as a step in the right direction, or maybe we should realise that by worsening the situation to crisis point, anything short of war is now considered progress.
Perhaps we should aim higher and the world should demand more of Israel. Just like they can ease the siege, they can end it too.
A ‘legitimate’ blockade
What the change in policy also does is legitimise the illegal blockade – giving it official status now endorsed by the Quartet and the Americans separately.
By changing it from a “civilian” blockade to a “military” one, in one stroke Israel pacified the international community and gained their approval (or at least a nod) for its continuing policy in Gaza.
But even if more goods are let in, even if the UN is finally able to finish its projects in the Strip, even if the land crossings start working efficiently and for longer hours – the people of Gaza are still under the whim of Israel’s decisions and 1.7 million people cannot leave.
For people there, this is often what they will tell you is the most difficult aspect of life under siege – entrapment and lack of control over the simplest of things like whether fresh meat will be available in Gaza tomorrow.
The naval blockade is still in place, exports are not allowed so the economy cannot recover, people are still trapped by air land and sea and Gazans are still 100 per cent reliant on Israel to survive. The new “military” blockade looks an awful lot like the old one, and it’s the “civilians” that bare the brunt of the siege, whatever name it goes by.