Blockade helps Hamas recruit, says ambassador

Israel's three-year blockade of Gaza has thrust its residents into the embrace of the Islamist group Hamas and created a generation of Palestinians hostile to the Jewish state, according to the departing British ambassador.

Sir Tom Phillips told the Jerusalem Post that the blockade has pushed Gaza "into a Hamas-controlled tunnel economy, and the Palestinian Gaza private sector has been almost completely destroyed". "Young boys on the streets [have] no role models apart from the Hamas guy in the black shiny uniform on the street corner," he added. The policy "was breeding radicalism," he said. The remarks chime with David Cameron's comparison of Gaza to a "prison camp" earlier this week, a criticism that drew a sharp rebuke from the Israeli embassy in London.

The British ambassador's comments are unlikely to endear him to Israelis, yet echo a growing sentiment in Israel that the blockade of Gaza, designed to weaken Hamas, is not working.

"Although one understood all the political pressures that were leading Israel to that situation, the fact is, it was causing significant humanitarian concerns," the ambassador said. "It was creating, in psychological terms, another generation of people that are not going to feel that friendly about Israel."

In an accompanying editorial, the paper wrote that the ambassador's "carefully measured assessments" after four years in Israel were "dispiriting" and failed to appreciate the challenges the country faces from Islamic extremism. "He evidently believes we risk making a frightful mess of things. He fears we are blind to the peace-making bona fides of [Palestinian president] Mahmoud Abbas. He's far from convinced that we're ready to relinquish 'Fortress Israel'. And he's being diplomatic," the editorial summed up.

In explaining a shift in British attitudes that now appear more hostile to Israel, the ambassador said that, in contrast to his generation, younger Britons do not see "plucky little Israel".

"What people see in the UK is: OK, Israel has some genuine security concerns and they've got to be met. But the answer to that cannot be keeping several million people without full civil, human and other rights, in a state of occupation," he said, referring to the occupied West Bank.

Israel's policy in Gaza drew global opprobrium when commandos boarded the lead ship of a Gaza-bound flotilla in international waters two months ago, killing nine of the people on the vessel. Israel was persuaded into easing its blockade, drawing cautious optimism from the diplomatic community.

But Israeli human-rights groups say that the measures do not represent a change in policy: exports are still not permitted, and most of Gaza's 1.5 million residents are trapped in the narrow coastal strip.

Israel has defended its siege on security grounds, saying that it prevents Iran ferrying weapons to Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel.

A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in London rejected the outgoing ambassador's criticisms. "The blockade is not a goal. It's an instrument that we would be very happy to remove if we could find other ways to prevent Gaza being used for launching missiles against Israel," he said.

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