Pressure Mounts On Israel To Ease Gaza Blockade

Members of the Israeli Cabinet i i

The Israeli Cabinet met Monday to approve an independent public commission to look into Israel's bloody attack on a Gaza-bound flotilla. In the wake of the attack, international pressure is mounting on Israel to change its policy on Gaza. Baz Ratner/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Baz Ratner/AP
Members of the Israeli Cabinet

The Israeli Cabinet met Monday to approve an independent public commission to look into Israel's bloody attack on a Gaza-bound flotilla. In the wake of the attack, international pressure is mounting on Israel to change its policy on Gaza.

Baz Ratner/AP

In the wake of last month's deadly commando raid on a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian relief aid to the Gaza Strip, international pressure is mounting on Israel to ease its blockade of the Palestinian territory.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top aides met Wednesday. Israeli officials are considering easing the blockade as early as next week to allow a much broader array of goods to enter Gaza.

But a final decision on the issue isn't going to be easy.

Some senior officials are known to oppose any lifting of the blockade because it could allow the militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, to obtain more weapons.

Need For Cement In Gaza

One of Gaza's most critical needs is cement, says U.N. spokesman Christopher Gunness. It is needed to rebuild what was destroyed during Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza 18 months ago.

"We've been told, 'Well, if you let cement into Gaza, terrorists will use it to build bunkers and launch rockets,' " says Gunness, who works with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

"We at UNRWA, for the last two months, have been getting cement in. No terrorist has taken it, they've not built bunkers out of it," Gunness says. "We've shown that we can get cement into Gaza. If you can do it for two months, you can do it for two years. If you can do it for a drop in the bucket, you can do it for a massive amount."

Yuval Diskin, head of the Israeli internal security agency Shin Bet, is among those who oppose easing the blockade.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the envoy of the so-called Quartet of Middle East peacemakers, predicted earlier this week that Israel would ease the three-year blockade and agree to the redeployment of international monitors on its land borders with Gaza to inspect shipments entering the territory.

Investigation Into Last Month's Deadly Raid

Meanwhile, a special Israeli commission held its first meeting to begin investigating the circumstances surrounding the commando raid.

"There was a request by a number of countries, whose opinion we value very much, and we wanted to show that we had nothing to conceal, that all has been done in good faith. And that the facts are as we have exposed them," says Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

The legality of the blockade is one of the topics on the commission's agenda. The panel is led by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Yaakov Tirkel. It includes two foreign observers, Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble and Canadian Ken Watkin, a former judge advocate general.

Palmor said the appointment of the observers was an unprecedented move by Israel in response to calls for an impartial investigation.

The U.S. has expressed measured support for the commission, calling it an important step forward. But calls for a U.N.-led investigation persist, as have demands that Israel lift its blockade on Gaza, says Gunness, the U.N. spokesman.

"There is no doubt with this tragedy on the high seas, with this flotilla, one feels that momentum is building and now people are questioning more than ever before the Israeli position on — is there a humanitarian crisis? And I think that pressure has never been so great," Gunness says.

Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, says that Israelis are well aware of that pressure.

"What is special about this investigation is that it was established due to pressure on the government, but this pressure didn't come from the Israeli public. It came from the outside," says Sulitzeanu-Kenan.

In a series of opinion polls published this week, the majority of Israeli Jews supported Israel's measures against the flotilla. They also overwhelmingly backed Israel's right to maintain the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

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