ISRAEL’S DECISION to change its blockade of Gaza provides welcome confirmation that it is capable of yielding to international pressure in its own interests. Substituting a list of goods prohibited on security grounds for the much longer one designed to punish its population for supporting Hamas should ease humanitarian suffering among Gaza’s 1.5 million population, which has endured this intense blockade for three years. It will allow essential infrastructure projects go ahead. And it could open the way to a more active set of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The Israeli blockade was first introduced in June 2006 when its soldier Gilad Shalit was captured. It was strengthened when Hamas seized power from Fatah one year later, effectively as a form of collective punishment directed against the whole population of the territory. It was reinforced during the rocket attacks on Israeli targets from Gaza and after Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza 18 months ago. The timing of this decision three weeks after Israeli commandos intercepted a Gaza-bound Turkish-led aid flotilla in international waters and killed nine activists came in response to stronger international demands.
Suddenly Israel looked very isolated, not least from its erstwhile regional ally Turkey. Israeli commentators increasingly raised the question of whether such isolation is sustainable or compatible with its own long- term security, despite its overwhelming military superiority. Even though plans to relax the Gaza blockade have been under consideration for some time, the aid convoy crisis brought them to a head. This vindicates those who protested against such an inhumane and legally questionable policy, helping bring it much more clearly to international public attention.
It also raises the question of what further action should be taken to maintain the pressure on Israel. Gaza badly needs the opportunity to rebuild, based on normal commercial flows rather than the ad-hoc tunnels from Egypt which have substituted for them. With more than half the population depending on international aid, it also needs a chance to develop economically. Above all its people need the hope of a peaceful settlement that international support can help create. That would encourage its people to come to terms politically with Hamas, an organisation which thrives on adversity and has deep roots in providing welfare, education and health facilities as well as a fundamentalist religious appeal. Its pragmatic wing should now be strengthened.