President Obama and Bibi Netanyahu are on the same page when it comes to the justification for Israel's bombardment of Gaza. Netanyahu : "No country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat." Obama: "There's no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders."
It's true that if, say, Canada were lobbing missiles into the US, the US wouldn't tolerate it. But here's another thing the US wouldn't tolerate: If Canada imposed a crippling economic blockade, denying America the import of essential goods and hugely restricting American exports. That would be taken as an act of war, and America would if necessary respond with force--by, perhaps, lobbing missiles into Canada.
The lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and permission for Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip freely through Israeli border crossings. These are the unequivocal demands that President Barack Obama is expected to make during his meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the White House in two weeks.
The experience of the Free Gaza Movement over the past few years, which sent half a dozen boat expeditions to deliver humanitarian aid to Gazans, suggests to many that in-your-face confrontation is the most effective way to challenge Israel and force it to change its policies. Israel’s reduced siege of Gaza is the fourth example of its changing a policy under pressure. The three other cases were the withdrawals from south Lebanon and Gaza’s heartland in the face of Hizbullah- and Hamas-led resistance, and the partial suspension of some settlements for 10 months last year in response to American government pressure.
So the question now is: How will people and states in the Arab world and nearby lands, like Iran and Turkey, react to the latest lesson in challenging Israel with forceful action, over making only meek pleas?
Israel is already initiating two new aggressive acts that will quickly test the mettle of both its friends and foes. It will destroy several dozen Palestinian Arab homes in occupied East Jerusalem to build an Israeli tourism facility, and it will initiate work on the ground to build another 600 homes for settler-colonial Zionists in the Jerusalem area.
The fascinating issue today is not whether Israel is making any major changes in its policies: it is not. Its changes are only cosmetic, to ward off foreign pressures. The really important new development is the growing Arab and international realization that the criminal and inhuman excesses of Zionism – colonialism, discrimination, collective punishment, racism, siege and starvation, murder on the high seas, mass incarcerations, and more – can best be confronted using the same tactics that finally brought down the two major examples of racism and inequity in modern times: the civil rights movement that broke the back of official racism in the United States, and the anti-Apartheid movement that forced the white minority government in South Africa to accept a fully democratic system.
Israel announced today that it will allow civilian goods to enter Gaza and loosen restrictions on freedom of movement:
Senior cabinet ministers on Sunday approved steps toward easing Israel's land blockade of the Gaza Strip, days after Jerusalem had issued a non-binding declaration supporting such a move.
In a statement released following the cabinet vote on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office emphasized that the change would not counter Israel's policy "to defend it citizens against terror, rocket fire or any other hostile activities from Gaza."
The PMO said that Israel would release "as soon as possible" a detailed list of goods that would not be allowed into the Gaza Strip, which would include all weapons.
"Israel seeks to keep out of Gaza weapons and material that Hamas uses to prepare and carry out terror and rocket attacks toward Israel and its civilians," Netanyahu said. "All other goods will be allowed into Gaza."
Israel's new policy will allow an inflow of construction material into the Gaza Strip for projects approved by the Palestinian Authority or under the auspices of international supervision, including schools, health facilities, water treatment and sanitation, the statement said.
Israel also said it would keep the right to ban "dual-use" construction materials that could be used by Hamas to manufacture weapons and to rebuild its military facilities.
The change in policy is also aimed at improving economic activity in the coastal territory, said the PMO. The new policy was also to allow humanitarian aid to be brought into Gaza in a more effective way and to ease movement in and out of the coastal territory, said the PMO.
Israel would consider further easing its siege as the situation on the ground improved, said the PMO. It would also continue to inspect every item brought to the Ashdod Port bound for the Gaza Strip.
The PMO emphasized in its statement that its defense regime along the Gaza border would remain in place and that Israel still sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Many reactions to this. The first is simply that it took the courage and lives of the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla to make this happen. The lesson to retain here is that confrontation works, it is not only effective, but necessary. Nothing will be given, you have to take it.
The second is that you have to treat anything that comes from a government that has lied and weaseled its way out of its treaties and international obligations for decades with a grain of salt. The devil will be in the details, such as the list of allowed goods Israel still has to publish and the character and length of the border procedures for people and goods moving in and out. It's crucial to wait to see what this means and how it's implemented.
That, in turn, will influence a bunch of other things. Assuming this does mean a general relaxation of the blockade, but not its lifting altogether, what are the larger consequences?
First there's the political fallout. This might not entirely be a popular move for the Netanyahu government considering the strong backing for collective punishment policies among many Israelis. For Hamas, they have arguable gained very little and potentially lost much face, since they are neither responsible for the blockade being lifted (the Freedom Flotilla and the international community achieved that) and now are back at being isolated but with less obvious ways to play the victims here. Likewise Fatah and the Palestinian Authority really appears ineffective here, and the recent decision by the PA to postpone municipal elections is hardly a sign of confidence.
For the Palestinians and especially people of Gaza, this will be hopefully bringing much relief and enable the reconstruction of the terrible destruction wrought by Israel's Operation Cast Lead. It still leaves impunity for Israel for its actions during that war, and efforts to get the Goldstone Report and other attempts to hold it accountable should be redoubled. But some of the basic rights of the Palestinians, such moving within their country (that is, between the West Bank and Gaza) are still curtailed. They now all have unrepresentative governments that have outlived their mandates, and a leadership that not only appears reluctant to reconcile but may be actively prevented from outside powers from doing so.
For Egypt, which was again destabilized by the renewed attention to the Rafah border, this will come with some relief. But I wonder for how long — this issue is not going away for long, and a continued spilt Palestinian polity and the unlikeliness of a peace deal makes it ever more likely that Gaza will be dumped on Egypt.
And for the Obama administration, which put out a press release (reproduced below) welcoming the Israeli decision without even a cautious wait-and-see approach, perhaps it means that an embarrassing moment may be over — for now. But while the White House is finally encouraging relieving the blockade and allowing traffic of goods and people between the West Bank and Gaza, it is still ignoring Hamas and Palestinian reconciliation. The name of the game is still West Bank First. It may take another crisis to abandon that policy.
Recently a bunch of EU country ambassadors were summoned by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and urged not to waver and engage Hamas, because "all of this is their fault." As some of the European powers try to find a solution to the Gaza blockade, it's not only Israel scuttling solutions — the Egyptians are doing it to in order to preserve their monopoly on talking to Hamas, stay relevant, and make sure they're not short-changed in any future deal:
Kouchner has said the EU could defuse tensions around Gaza by checking the cargo on ships bound for the tiny Palestinian coastal enclave as well as the Rafah border crossing from Egypt into the Hamas-controlled territory.
Providing further details of the proposal made last week, the French diplomatic chief said the checks could take place in Cyprus, which, unlike Gaza, has a deepwater port. Cargo could also be unloaded in the Israeli port of Ashdod.
"This would simplify the checks," he added, though acknowledging the plan "is not a success for now."
According to Kouchner, there would also be a list of banned products, but not a blanket ban on merchandise delivered to the Palestinians.
He expressed pessimism for the Rafah proposal, saying "it's not certain this would work because our Egyptian friends do not want us to speak directly with Hamas."
I wonder if Kouchner expressing this publicly is meant to embarrass the Egyptians and signal that they might just ignore them (and their American protectors). More details on possible deals over Rafah here.
This is coming at a time when there are voices within the EU rising to act more effectively on Middle East issues, as well as more independently from the US. For the last few decades, despite being a full members of the Quartet and the major donor to the Palestinians (as well as an important trade partner to the Israelis), the EU has played second fiddle to hopelessly biased and ineffective US administrations.
Chris Patten writes in the Guardian:
Today's miserable standoff in the Middle East requires new initiatives. The short-term failure of Israeli policies has concentrated global attention on their blockade of Gaza rather than on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. The long-term failure has rendered increasingly difficult a two-state solution as Palestine is broken up into barriered Bantustans.
As President Obama's military commanders have told him, the absence of anything resembling a peace process in the Middle East, and the identification of Washington with a very rightwing Israeli government, has made it more difficult for the US to deal with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and others.
If politics does not succeed, then humanitarian aid will continue to be necessary. Yet we should never depend on the provision of humanitarian relief as an excuse for diplomatic drift and the failure to confront intransigence. Organisations such as Medical Aid for Palestinians do not exist so that others can duck their moral and political responsibilities.
. . .
However, the EU has too often since taken the view that only Washington really drives things forward. Yet what should the EU do when American policy is going nowhere? Not surprisingly, the secretary-general of the Arab League called the so-called quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia), which supervised the non-implementation of the road map for peace, "the quartet sans trois".
. . .
Today, the EU should not only call for an immediate end to the Gaza blockade but should work harder to promote reconciliation between the splintered Palestinian body-politic. The UN should be tasked with preventing the flow of weapons while the EU should take the initiative with Turkey and the Arab League to re-establish a government of national unity involving Fatah and Hamas for the whole of the Palestinian territory. In due course, the EU should monitor free elections there. You cannot favour democracy everywhere except in Palestine.
Without Hamas there will not be a peace settlement. What we should require from Hamas is simple – a ceasefire, acceptance of the outcome of a peace process provided it is endorsed in a Palestinian referendum, and help in securing the release of Corporal Shalit. To insist that they accept all past agreements is bizarre when no such requirement is made of Israel. Look, for example, at settlement building.
We should go further. There has been speculation the US may consider unilaterally tabling an agreement with a timetable for achieving it. Opponents of this proposal have questioned whether it would be wise for the US to thus risk its prestige. The EU could work with Turkey and the Arab League to draft proposals for an agreement to be tabled in the UN security council. This may not be immediately acceptable to the US but would at least bring some momentum.
Go for it!
The silver lining in the tragedy of Israel's brutal raid on the Free Gaza flotilla is a new urgency about lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the territory's humanitarian crisis. Calls for the blockade to be lifted have been made in the Arab world, in Europe and even, albeit more timidly, by the Obama administration. But Israel's siege is not the only thing that has been highlighted: the role of Egypt, Tel Aviv's silent partner in the blockade, has also been brought to the fore. This is an uncomfortable development for Egypt, which denies playing any role in the blockade even as it closed its border with Gaza at Rafah since the June, 2007 Hamas takeover. Even now, after quietly opening the Rafah border crossing to avoid popular outrage, the Egyptians are preventing an aid convoy led by the Alexandria Pharmacists Association from reaching the crossing. The renewed uproar over Rafah has the potential to destabilize Egypt, exponentially raising the cost of its participation in the Israeli-led, Quartet-endorsed blockade -- an outcome that the Egyptians will seek to avoid but is also a concern for their Arab allies, Israel and the Obama administration.
The Egyptians have for the past three years offered an elaborate explanation to deflect blame for their enforcing of the blockade -- despite the fact that the border, with a few exceptions for a few medical cases and hajj pilgrims, has remained closed since June 9, 2007. Whatever the legal merits of Egypt's position, domestically and regionally it lost the moral and political argument: there has been widespread outrage at what is essentially seen as Egyptian collaboration with Israel to punish Gazans for Hamas' actions. Its intentions have also been made clear by acts that can be best described as petty and vindictive, such as the treatment of last December's Viva Palestina convoy, which arrived at the southern Sinai port of Nuweiba only to be told to it could not disembark: it was forced to go to the northern Sinai port of al-Arish by heading back to Jordan, driving up to Syria, and then chartering a boat to al-Arish. Its reported intention of building an imposing wall across the border has been the subject of intense debate.
Why has Egypt taken such an unpopular hard line towards the Rafah crossing into Gaza? What will it do now?
As I write this it is still not clear how many people have died as a result of the Israeli commando raid on the Free Gaza flotilla carrying aid supplies for blockaded Palestine. AP is still not going beyond four, Haaretz mentions 10, and al-Jazeera International says 15 or 16. Whatever the final number — which may still rise further as some of the wounded are in critical situation — it's pretty clear Israel decided to implement the naval equivalent of the Dahiya Doctrine on a group of largely unarmed activists carrying aid to a people who have suffered through three years of sanctions that have been endorsed by the international community.
There will be a lot of Hasbara over the coming few days, as there has been in the run-up to to this crisis. An important part in making the flotilla effort mean something will be to render it ineffective and bring back attention to the cold-blooded murders that took place in the international waters of the Eastern Mediterranean in the morning of 31 May 2010.
Hopefully we will see democratic governments, like Turkey, take swift and decisive diplomatic action to counter what amounts to an attack on Turkish citizens. The European Parliament can be mobilized over the attack putting its MPs at risk, although I don't expect much from the supine and cowardly European Commission. There is an opportunity here to bring pressure onto Arab governments, especially Egypt for its collaboration with Israel in enforcing a blockade. Out of this morning's tragedy good things might come to reinforce Israel's isolation and drive home the larger point that it has literally been getting away with murder for far too long.
From Deir Yassin in 1948 to Khan Yunis in 1956 all the way to Qana in 1996, Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, there has been effort for accountability against all odds. The flotilla murders are an occasion to bring attention to other even greater crimes, starting by making sure the international investigation by the Goldstone Commission actually goes somewhere.
Update: The Al Jazeera English video I had posted earlier has been "removed by user" so I am replacing with another from Justicentric (a great place to follow developments on this issue via twitter):
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