Pressure Builds On Israel To Lift Gaza Blockade

Israel announced this week that it is slightly easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip after the deadly May 31 commando raid on a ship carrying relief supplies to Gaza, but critics say that an entire policy shift is needed.

Israeli officials use a number of strong words to describe the recent onslaught of criticism over their blockade on the Gaza Strip. It is "unprecedented," "shocking" and "surprising," they told NPR.

Officially, Israel says that it will maintain its tight restrictions on what goes in and out of Gaza as long as there are security concerns — namely, suspicions that weapons will fall into the hands of militants in Gaza intent on attacking Israeli targets. But behind closed doors, the officials say they are being forced to consider alternatives to the blockade.

Letting Goods In

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the envoy of the Quartet of Middle East Peacemakers that include the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the European Union, says he is discussing some of those options with Israeli leaders.

"There are any number of ideas on the table, but the most important thing is to establish the principle, and that is to say that unless there is a good security reason to say that something is not coming in, we let the goods in," he says.

Blair says that a number of mechanisms can easily be established to ensure that Israel's security requirements are met, while lifting some of the current restrictions.

Some of the options involve the redeployment on Gaza's borders of monitors from the Palestinian Authority and the European Union to ensure that goods are inspected before delivery.

'Economic Warfare'

But critics of the blockade say Israel is using its security concerns as an excuse to impose severe restrictions on the people of Gaza.

"Under international law, Israel as the occupying power has the right to inspect shipments coming into Gaza to make sure there are no weapons. So let's do that, let's check the shipments and allow purely civilian goods in," said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, the Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. "That's not what's happening."

Bashi says the blockade is part of a broader policy to try to impose collective punishment on the people of Gaza and weaken the regime of the militant group Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence. Israel severely tightened restrictions on Gaza three years ago, when Hamas seized control of the territory after routing forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bashi points to court papers obtained by Gisha after the Hamas takeover. In them, the Israeli government calls the blockade part of a campaign of "economic warfare."

Part of the problem, she says, is that no one is sure about what exactly is allowed into Gaza under the blockade on any given day. No master list exists, say officials from the U.N. and other international aid groups, and items allowed into Gaza change frequently and erratically. U.N. figures show that what does enter Gaza is, on average, only one-quarter of what was received before the Hamas takeover.

Restrictions Relaxed

Last year, Gisha sued the Israeli government under the Freedom of Information Act for details of the government's policy, including lists of items permitted and forbidden. The Israeli government refused to release the list, citing security concerns.

"We don't understand why releasing a list of items allowed into Gaza could possibly be harmful to state security," Bashi said. "It would certainly be helpful to people trying to get goods into Gaza.

"And, maybe more important, it would allow public scrutiny of a policy that makes no sense. Banning margarine? Banning food wrappers? Banning glucose? That is not about security, and that doesn't make sense."

Israel has made recent allowances to try and stem some of the criticism. This week, Israel permitted sugary sweets, chips, soda and spices to enter Gaza.

Israelis, however, still show strong support for the blockade. In one recent poll, the newspaper Israel Hayom said approximately 73 percent of Israelis backed the current version of the blockade. But in Gaza, Hamas officials say that in coming weeks Israel will only face more pressure to reconsider the blockade.

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