Pressure on Israel to lift Gaza blockade

The three-year Israeli embargo on goods going into Gaza is 'unacceptable and counterproductive', says a report by the Quartet.
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Israel's cabinet meets today under the heaviest international pressure yet – in the aftermath of its lethal naval commando assault on a pro-Palestinian flotilla a fortnight ago – to relax the three-year economic embargo on Gaza.

Western diplomats are hoping that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, will give the first indication this morning of a major rethink of Gaza policy, under which a wide range of civilian goods would be admitted to start reviving the paralysed commercial life of the besieged territory. The international Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, met Mr Netanyahu for the third time in eight days on Friday to press him to end the heavily restrictive list of "allowed" civilian goods and produce one for those that are to be banned instead, as a first step towards reviving commerce and allowing postwar reconstruction.

The seemingly technical change would have potentially far-reaching consequences since it would require Mr Netanyahu to agree the general authorisation of civilian imports to Gaza – including raw materials needed for manufacturing and subsequent exports – other than those agreed to pose a clear threat to Israel's security.

Today's Israeli cabinet meeting comes 24 hours ahead of a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers, three of whom, France's Bernard Kouchner, Italy's Franco Frattini, and Miguel Moratinos of Spain, also called publicly last week for a relaxation of the naval embargo and the reopening of the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel at Karni.

The embargo, imposed after Hamas seized full control of Gaza by force when its coalition with Fatah collapsed in June 2007, has precipitated the virtual collapse of Gaza's once productive private-sector manufacturing industry, decimated agricultural exports, confined the formerly vital fishing industry within a one-mile limit, left 80 per cent of Gazans dependent on food aid, and rendered pointless the vast bulk of the $7.5bn pledged by donor countries for reconstruction after Israel's 2008-2009 military offensive in the territory.

An insight into the plans being worked on by the Quartet (the UN, US, EU and Russia) – which has specifically mandated Mr Blair to conduct the negotiations with Mr Netanyahu – is contained in a draft of the paper authorised for circulation by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in the wake of the flotilla attack, and which describes the three-year-old blockade as "unacceptable and counterproductive". It adds that the blockade "hurts the people of Gaza, holds their future hostage, and undermines work to drive reconstruction, development and economic empowerment. At the same time, the blockade empowers Hamas through the tunnel economy and damages Israel's long-term security through its corrosive impact on a generation of young Palestinians."

The British draft, which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday, stresses that the new approach is "not about rewarding Hamas"; that the Quartet needs to restate its "wider position on Hamas and its concern about Hamas's role in Gaza" and repeats calls for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and other Gaza militants four years ago.

But although the working paper was drafted for last week's Quartet meeting, it summarises what it says was "already broad agreement" on a package of measures needed to ease the blockade, "including through earlier work by the UN and the Quartet representative [Mr Blair]". These include:

* Urgent UN-led reconstruction. It says the blockade has prevented implementation of the UN's "comprehensive" plan for the most urgently needed building of schools, hospitals, sewerage water and other infrastructure;

* Switching from the list of "allowed" to one of "banned goods" – which it says is "the right way to protect both valid security measures and vital economic activity";

* "Robust monitoring" of potential dual-use materials such as cement and piping, with the international community playing an important potential role;

* The reopening of Karni, "the only crossing suited to the large volume of goods that need to start flowing", with a possible EU monitoring role such as that undertaken at Rafah before June 2007;

* Starting seaborne delivery "via [the Israeli port of] Ashdod" to help kickstart both imports and exports;

* A boost in funding for the UN refugee agency UNRWA, which is responsible for the education and health of almost 1 million of Gaza's 1.5m residents.

The negotiations on the embargo have overlapped with those – especially between Israel and the US – over what form of inquiry should be conducted into the commando raid which halted the flotilla and cost the lives of nine Turks in the fighting aboard the biggest of the boats, the passenger ferry Mavi Marmara. Israel, whose military chief of staff, Gabi Ashekenazi, has appointed Giora Eiland, a reserve general and former head of the national security agency, to head an internal inquiry into the naval operation, has indicated that it will also appoint a former high court judge to head a civilian inquiry. It is not expected that such an inquiry will take testimony from naval special forces personnel who took part in the raid.

While Western governments and Israel have denied any direct linkage between the two issues, diplomats have acknowledged that any expectation that Israel was prepared for a significant relaxation of the Gaza embargo would lessen pressure for a full international inquiry, of the sort proposed by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.

The switch from an "allowed" to a "banned" list would be a major policy shift, since the latter would presumably only include goods deemed to put Israel's security at risk. That would reflect a change of purpose at the time of the original imposition of the embargo – reinforced by the Israeli cabinet's declaration of Gaza as a "hostile entity" – which had the much wider goal of crippling its economy.

Documents produced by the Israeli authorities at the time in the face of court challenges to the blockade specifically cited international conventions permitting "economic warfare" under certain circumstances. Mr Netanyahu, not then in office, could thus plausibly argue that he had no responsibility for the original decision.

When Israel relaxed the embargo last week to allow in a range of additional foods – from the previously banned coriander, jam, packaged hummus and biscuits – Gisha, the Israeli human rights organisation, pointed out that Israel was still not letting in raw materials like margarine and glucose that could be used for processed food manufacture in Gaza itself.

The same is true of a much wider range of raw materials – such as textile fabrics that up to 2007 were imported in large quantities by hundreds of small clothing firms. It is well nigh impossible to justify a ban on importing rolls of cloth on security grounds.

The switch from a "permitted" to a "banned" list is reportedly envisaged by Mr Blair as the first of three principles for a relaxation of the embargo. The second is that international aid agencies, in consultation with Israel, would have oversight for "dual use" goods which Israel fears could be seized by Hamas for military purposes. The model is the severely limited increase of building materials for sewage, hospital and housing projects in Gaza in the past few weeks, in which the UN has successfully acted as guarantor that the imports will not so be used, and which it wants expanded.

While some Europeans have been suggesting that the naval blockade could be lifted to allow ships to go to Gaza after international and/or Israeli inspection, Israel has so far been resistant to any transfer to Gaza other than by land.

The third is the reopening of land crossings – most notably the big cargo terminal at Karni – in which EU officials, and possibly in the longer term, units of President Mahmoud Abbas's presidential guard would assume responsibility for monitoring goods entering Gaza.