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18 Jun, 2010 05:41

Israel softens blockade rules for Gaza

Israel's Security Cabinet on Thursday decided to ease the land blockade of Gaza.

Authorities hope this will quell international criticism over the country's attack on ships carrying aid to the region.

The Security Cabinet has voted to expand the list of products it will allow into Gaza, including desperately-needed construction materials.

The proposal comes after 7 weeks of intense negotiations between the Israeli officials and the Middle East Quartet Envoy Tony Blair.

One of the contentious issues has always been cement and steel, which Israelis claim Gazans use for the manufacture of weapons and for military fortification. The Gazans insist that they need it to rebuild homes and businesses that were destroyed a year-and-a-half ago during the operation Israel held in the Gaza strip.

Under the new proposal, these goods and items will be allowed into the Gaza strip, but only in co-ordination with the United Nations.

Israel is very concerned by the widespread international condemnation that followed the flotilla raid two weeks ago, but all these talks concern only the lifting of the land blockade in Gaza, not the naval blockade.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Israel would never allow the establishment of an Iranian port at Gaza.” Israel is incredibly concerned that weapons would be transported through these waters into the Gaza strip.

In recent days, Israel has sent out an appeal to some Western governments asking them to put pressure on and issue travel warnings to their citizens not to participate in flotillas.

The Israelis are hoping that, as their government will ease the restrictions on Gaza, they will be less of an incentive for foreign citizens to participate in possible future flotilla operations.

Activist Radmilla Daniell from the “International Solidarity Movement” believes that this move is a very slight measure and a complete lift of the blockade is inevitable.

“Before this latest extension of the list, only about 60 items were entering Gaza via Israel,” Daniell told RT. “Now Israel is proposing to expand it a little bit more, but before the siege was introduced three years ago, about 4 000 items were needed by Gazans to be imported just to maintain normal life… [Something has to be done] to actually insure that 1.5 million Gazans stop living in this big prison where they are deprived of so many things because Israel is not allowing them in, but also Israel is not allowing Gazans to grow their own stuff, catch their own fish, do their own farming.”

“So, in order to insure that Gazans have a minimal standard which is acceptable to the rest of the world, the blockade needs to be fully lifted,” the activist stated. “I think that Israel is going to somewhat ease the pressure after the horrible massacres of the people of the humanitarian flotilla, but this is not enough. This is just a really minor adjustment of what is already going on, which has created the major humanitarian tragedy in Gaza.”

Bianca Zammit, an activist from the Free Gaza Movement, told RT that allowing more products into Gaza strip is not the first step towards the lifting of the blockade altogether.

“Israel just came up with this policy to try and win some of the people who have been asking Israel to take some steps to ease the siege.”

Ms Zammit points out that there are many other aspects to the blockade apart from the list of prohibited products.

“The problem is that the siege has many negative effects on the people. One of the main problems that it’s causing is that with employment. People cannot work, all the people who before used to work outside Gaza. There is a very big part of the population who used to work in Israel. Now they are prohibited from working there, so they do not have a job. Also there are many students and many people who are injured or who are sick. They need desperately to go to hospital outside of Gaza. It’s not going to affect them in any way. The blockade is still there.” 

Christopher King, a member of the British Liberty human rights organization, thinks the blockade affects not only the Palestinians.

“I think Israelis have done themselves a great deal of harm here. With the blockade and everything that they are doing they are creating a kind of mythology, a kind of folklore for the Palestinians that serves as a focus of what they fight for: land, for the right to live peacefully on their own land. And there are martyrs. We have Rachel Corrie and Furkan Dogan who are American citizens who were killed in this assault. So the internationalists that are fighting for what we might broadly call Free Palestine have martyrs now,” says Mr. King.

Reality amid the rubble

College student Rakyan Shahada sifts through the dirt and stones of what used to be Gaza's only airport. But the last time a plane landed here was nine years ago.

Since then, only Israeli shells have touched down, and in recent years – nothing. The money Rakyan gets from selling gravel finances his college studies, because building materials are in short supply in Gaza and have been ever since Israel imposed its economic blockade four years ago.

“I never would have believed we’d destroy what remained from our airport, but we do it to survive,” Shahada told RT. “We use the gravel from here to help build buildings and it’s also a way to resist the blockade.”

Israel’s decision on Thursday to widen the list of items and material allowed into Gaza is drawing certain expectations from Gazans, as well as fear from Israel. Over the next few days the Security Cabinet will flesh out the details of its new policy.

"We are looking forward to intensive discussions, aiming at finding the way among all these flotillas and other events to re-focus on the need to move forward in the peace process, and to resume intensively both the proximity talks, and hopefully followed by the direct talks. I think that that remains major goal of the state of Israel and, I believe, also the major goal of the United States of America," said Ehud Barak, Israeli Defense Minister.

The question remains if the Israeli decision will satisfy Gaza and the international community. Hamas and human rights groups say the move is nothing more than window dressing.

"There is no such thing as easing the siege: this siege must be totally and completely lifted,” claimed Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator. “This is a collective punishment against 1.5 million people living in Gaza. It has no political dimension, no security dimension."

Until now Israel's policy was to ban all goods from entering Gaza unless they appeared on an approved list. That has now been reversed. Everything is allowed in – unless it is on the banned list.

“Gaza CLA is operating to allow the access of more than a hundred trucks filled with goods on a daily basis through to the Gaza strip, in spite of the terrorist situation and threat that we need to deal with in this area,” said Amitai Cohen, Gaza Co-ordination and Liaison Organization.

But for Gazans on the other side of the border, it will take a while before they notice a difference. And until then, Rakyan and his friends will continue to scrounge for what they can to survive.