Managing the Gaza blockade

Tuesday, June 8, 2010; A16

ISRAEL'S BLOCKADE of Gaza is crumbling. In the wake of last week's clash between Israelis commandos and militants on a relief flotilla, the world at large has condemned it; the Obama administration has called it "unsustainable." Egypt reopened its crossing into Gaza for humanitarian aid and some travel. But the solution is not as simple as simply ending the checks on sea and land traffic by Israel. What's needed is a new regime that addresses the legitimate needs of Palestinians in Gaza without further empowering Hamas and its patron, Iran.

No one who supports a peace settlement in the Middle East can also favor the removal of all controls on ships traveling to Gaza. The result would be a repeat of what has happened in southern Lebanon since Israel's withdrawal: the massive supply of weapons, including medium-range missiles, to Tehran's client. Hamas used Iranian missiles against Israel during their 2008 conflict, and an open sea border would only multiply the odds that such a war would be repeated. It would hand Hamas, which vehemently opposes an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, the means to interrupt peace talks at any time.

But Israel's policy has not been aimed at weapons smuggling alone. It also has choked off many consumer goods and supplies needed to rebuild Gaza's economy. The worthy but futile purpose has been to pressure Hamas to alter its refusal to recognize Israel -- or at least to release an Israeli soldier whom it abducted from Israeli territory in 2006. Though Israeli officials say they allow adequate supplies of food and medicine, U.N. agencies report that malnutrition is growing. Power, fuel and water are in short supply, and sewage systems are not operating due to lack of repairs. Meanwhile, Hamas is receiving many of the goods its militants want thanks to hundreds of tunnels dug under the Egyptian border.

Egypt is constructing a wall that will block many of the tunnels, which should provide more impetus for Israel to relax the blockade. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy proposes that instead of choosing which goods it allows, Israel should permit all save those it expressly bans on grounds that they can be used for military purposes. Ships should probably continue to unload goods in nearby Israeli ports. Proposals for international inspections of cargos sound good in principle -- but the failure of such schemes in Lebanon, and previously in Gaza, gives Israel reasonable cause to resist.

Easing controls over Gaza runs the risk of giving Hamas a major boost at the expense of the rival Palestinian Authority. So Israel should simultaneously push forward with plans to relax its control over the West Bank, by taking down more roadblocks, turning over more territory to Palestinian security forces and making trade and foreign investment easier. The already-dramatic contrast between the West Bank and Gaza can continue to grow, to Hamas's disadvantage, even if Gazans are a little less miserable.

The "Free Gaza" organizers contend their aim has been to relieve humanitarian suffering. If that is the case, they should welcome a relaxation of Israel's controls and end their provocative attempts to "break the blockade" by sea. More such confrontations won't benefit average Palestinians -- only Hamas.

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