Earlier this week Tony Blair, as Middle East envoy of the Quartet, came out of a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu saying that the Israeli government was now ready to move to a whole new regime of blockade on the Gaza Strip. The Israelis would allow all civilian goods in except those specifically banned instead of, as now, stopping any goods except those specifically allowed. Yesterday the Israeli cabinet agreed a liberalisation of the blockade which fell short of that. The range of goods allowed through is to be expanded but the basic regime of control is maintained.
Those dashed expectations may be partly a reflection of over-optimism on Tony Blair's part, whose period as Quartet envoy has been notable for its failure to achieve anything of real substance, especially regarding Gaza. But then few, other than Mr Blair, would have felt that the right-wing government of Israel would really dismantle its blockade on Gaza, whatever the pressures from the United States or elsewhere.
Israel feels a blockade is essential to its security, and any substantive easing will only serve the interests of Hamas, which controls the Strip. Its decision now to allow in a greater volume and type of humanitarian aid is essentially a sop to Washington and international opinion after its assault earlier this month on the flotilla taking aid to Gaza. The easing may help alleviate some of the suffering of the population, but the blockade remains tight with the object of putting maximum pressure on Hamas.
So too with the announcement earlier this week that the government would be setting up an internal inquiry into the circumstances of that assault and the resulting deaths of nine activists. Like the Widgery Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, it will be headed by an ex-Chief Justice and consist of a retired general and a professor of international law. The aim will be to establish the legality of the blockade and point out lessons for the military to manage these interventions more effectively in the future. It will not question the policy or the justification for the action – both of which have aroused condemnation from the UN and most of Israel's allies.
The blockade only enhances the power of Hamas and hurts the people of the Strip. But after this week it remains clearer than ever that Israel is simply not going to change course. If the world wants to help the Gazan people it is up to the United Nations to despatch naval aid convoys, or for Egypt to keep open its southern land crossing permanently.