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Gaza: State of siege
22 June 2010
It did not take long for the optimism generated by Israel`s decision to ease the blockade of Gaza to evaporate. The intention of moving from a system in which Israel states what it is prepared to allow in, to one in which it explicitly states what it would ban, was to increase the flow of goods into Gaza. Sweets, chocolate, nutmeg, vinegar, toys, stationery, mattresses and towels have no conceivable dual military use for the Hamas-run enclave. But until recently, dangerous spices such as sage and suspicious sweets such as halva were banned, in an exercise that was always designed to be a form of collective punishment for 1.5 million Gazans. The end of such an odious and self-defeating policy is obviously welcome, except that yesterday it emerged that the new list of forbidden materials could be thousands of items long. The real shortages in Gaza – medical instruments, aluminium, steel and cement – may not be addressed. A blockade that the US, Britain and the EU all insist is `unacceptable and unsustainable` could thus be set to continue.
Even if life on the ground in Gaza is not going to change radically, the new rules still represent a political retreat for the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, three weeks after his naval commandos stormed a flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists. If anyone is going to claim a moral victory, it will be Turkey, and the tactic of challenging the naval part of the blockade by sending more ships will surely continue, with participants from Arab countries, possibly even Saudi Arabia, taking part.
For its part, the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas now has even less reason than it had before to be reconciled with the Palestinian Authority by signing a document drawn up by the Egyptians, by which it would accept the PLO agreement to recognise Israel. Why would Hamas stop being Hamas, after all Gaza has endured, and follow Fatah down its fruitless 17-year path searching for peace, at the very moment at which international support, particularly in Europe, for its contined isolation appears to be crumbling? The longer the stalemate continues, the more Hamas becomes part of the landscape. Even if it were incapable of governing, maintaining some form of collective discipline with other armed factions, Hamas would still retain its legitimacy. There is still, after four years, no convincing evidence that Hamas is losing the support it won in the only free election to be mounted in the Arab world. Political isolation has not worked any better than physical isolation. The only way out of these failing policies is to actively seek Palestinian reconciliation, rather than, as at present, to veto it. This has as much to do with US and the Quartet as it has to do with Israel. Conditions that demand the unilateral surrender of Palestinian militants before they even get to the negotiating table should be shelved and replaced by objectives that are achievable, such as a general ceasefire.
As things are, any attempt to allow Hamas into the ring would be regarded as a move against the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. This is a lose-lose situation for each side. The Palestinian president is losing authority by saying that now is not the time for the naval blockade to be lifted. But he is equally losing by failing to secure the three core demands of a viable Palestinian state – borders, the right of return and East Jerusalem as its capital. For Hamas, it means that the test of political negotiation – of keeping unity while redefining political goals in the light of what is achievable – can for ever be put off for another day. The pressure on both wings to react to the next hammer blow does not go away: the threatened resumption of large-scale settlement construction, the withdrawal of residency rights and the demolition of Arab homes in East Jerusalem.
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