RAMALLAH — Israel may allow soft drinks, juice, canned fruit, salads, biscuits, and potato chips into the Gaza Strip from next week. What should be an unremarkable event is making news headlines and portends unseen consequences.
After four years of a crippling Israeli blockade, which has reduced the poverty-stricken territory to a humanitarian basket-case, the international powers that be, in their infinite wisdom, have reached the conclusion that the above mentioned items do not, in fact, represent a threat to Israel’s security.
Israel is currently under intense international pressure to lift its siege on Gaza and to allow ordinary everyday items into the coastal territory, including toilet paper, toothpaste, seedlings, school books, uniforms, cigarettes and reconstruction material.
Most of these items, and others, were banned, following Israel and Egypt’s hermetic sealing of the Gaza Strip after Hamas won free and fair elections in January 2006. Israel has argued the blockade was necessary for "security" reasons.
Human rights organizations counter that the siege is a collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million mostly civilian residents and that the coastal territory has been turned into the largest open-air prison in the world. They further argue the siege is illegal under international law.
The latest developments follow the international media spotlight on, and the political ramifications in international power circles, of the Free Gaza (FG) flotilla’s attempt to break Israel’s siege on Gaza.
Nine people lost their lives and dozens of others were injured after Israeli commandos attacked the six boats, with approximately 700 people on board, in international waters as the flotilla tried to deliver desperately needed aid to the besieged civilian population of Gaza in the early hours of May 31.
Although Gaza’s plight has been a festering sore on the collective conscience of the international community it has largely been ignored – until now.
"Hamas has emerged from the latest debacle victorious. Not only is the group, according to Israeli intelligence, militarily stronger than prior to the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) military assault on the strip during Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009, but it is also significantly stronger politically," Prof. Moshe Ma’oz from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University told IPS.
"It has not bowed to Israeli pressure to give up power, neither has it forsaken the armed struggle and Israel still has not secured the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas fighters in 2006," added Ma’oz. Some analysts have argued that this capture was one of the main reasons behind the blockade.
Following the Flotilla attack Israel has been subjected to a fresh barrage of global criticism, coming shortly after the Goldstone report. Increasingly the Jewish state is being portrayed as a bully and a pariah state which operates above international law.
Israel’s decision to ease the blockade is largely the result of a quid pro quo understanding that it would escape a credible international inquiry into the bloodshed on the FG flotilla.
Instead the Israeli government and military will be investigating themselves, with possibly several token international observers, in a move which has already been laughed off by legal experts, including Israelis, as a whitewash of the affair.
Nevertheless, facts on the ground have turned dramatically in Hamas’ favor. The enormously unpopular regime of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak decided to lift its blockade at the Rafah crossing indefinitely, after Mubarak was placed in an untenable situation.
This followed a meeting between Mubarak, and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, a strong Israeli supporter, in the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm El-Sheikh recently where both men agreed that the blockade would be lifted gradually. The Hamas authorities have responded positively to another European Union (EU) proposal to allow EU monitors back into Gaza to help monitor border crossings as well as launch a sea patrol so that Gaza port can be reopened.
But the biggest change has come from U.S. President Barack Obama who stated that the blockade was unsustainable. Obama has also offered to provide Gaza with aid as long as it is closely monitored. Formerly, the U.S. only provided aid for the Palestinian Authority (PA)-controlled West Bank.
Another breakthrough has been in the U.S., hitherto very much biased in Israel’s favor. NBC Tonight recently aired a groundbreaking program covering the hardships in Gaza. Americans in general have not been well-informed on the contextual background to the Gaza crisis.
However, the biggest change yet to be seen, which works against Israel and ergo in favor of Hamas, is the new balance of power which appears to be unfolding in the Mideast. There are indications that the West’s, and particularly the U.S.’, strategy to divide the region along a Shi’ite crescent v/s a Sunni power-base could backfire badly.
Turkey could well be the new power broker regionally. Israel has lost a strong ally — in a hostile Muslim region — with which it shared intelligence and military maneuvers.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moderate Islamic Justice and Development party is winning influence away from Turkey’s traditionally secular military.
Israel’s erstwhile foe, Syria, has promised Turkey unconditional support for any further action in Gaza as their relationship strengthens. Meanwhile, Israel’s nemesis, an increasingly cocky and confident Iran has offered to send two Iranian Red Crescent aid ships to Gaza escorted by Revolutionary Guard frigates. Such a move could trigger war.
Simultaneously, an increasingly weak and unpopular PA president Mahmoud Abbas — who has been relegated to newspaper back pages of late — was given some desperately needed life support on Wednesday.
Obama met with Abbas in the White House and promised not only political support but economic aid to the beleaguered Abbas.
Proximity peace talks with Israel have ground to a halt. Growing numbers of Palestinians see no gain from negotiations with Israel. Many instead see Hamas as steadfast, a view increasingly reflected in the region.
Under the new political scenario, Obama is probably praying that the PA can be saved.
(Inter Press Service)