Crews are outfitting two Lebanese boats to test Israel’s blockade of Gaza; the first, the Julia, might set sail as early this week. Why more flotillas, one might ask, given that Israel announced on Sunday an overhaul of its comprehensive sanctions on trade with Gaza?
The reason lies not in the baffling (and to many Gazans, frustrating) restrictions that Israel has placed on the flow of goods from Israel into the tiny and crowded coastal strip. Israel never has been able to explain why sage was OK, but not cilantro, or why the United Nations couldn’t import cement to rebuild schools while Hamas’ armed wing, as well as private contractors, could bring in all the cement they wanted through the illegal tunnels.
The blockade-busters want to create tension. The greater the problems, the more attention to their cause.
If the Netanyahu government translates Sunday’s statement into a substantially more open border with Gaza, they’ll find the calls for a new approach to Gaza just as shrill as ever—perhaps even more shrill now that Israel has backed down on one element of the blockade. What Gazans object to is that Israel claims to have ended any vestiges of occupation of Gaza when it pulled out the Jewish settlements in 2005—and yet, at the same time Israel retains control of Gaza’s sea and land borders.
• Matthew McAllester: The Palestinians’ Secret WeaponThat’s the nub of the problem, and not the shortage of foodstuffs and medicines. If Israel resolved Gaza’s humanitarian concerns, the Palestinians in Gaza would still be incensed that they can’t travel, import or export goods without Israel’s permission.
In other words, it’s not the cilantro; it’s the siege that’s the problem.
“This is just another way for Israel to deceive the world,” Ahmed Yousef, the Hamas deputy foreign minister in Gaza, told al-Jazeera. Turkey is still demanding an Israeli apology for the nine Turks killed on the Mavi Marmara. Israeli human-rights groups like Gisha are calling for a total lifting of the blockade, which it calls “economic warfare.” The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which feeds most Gazans and runs the largest school system in the Strip, complained that the Israeli move was incremental. "We need to have the blockade fully lifted," UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness told Reuters. “The Israeli strategy is to make the international community talk about a bag of cement here, a project there. We need full unfettered access through all the crossings.”
Lebanese groups have outfitted two ships, the Julia and the Miriam. Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel, and the government—seemingly eager to avoid directly antagonizing its southern neighbor—has ordered the boats to sail first to Cyprus, rather than directly from Lebanon to Israel. Hezbollah has denied links to the ships. But Iran, meanwhile, has strained Israel’s nerves by threatening to dispatch three aid ships to Gaza; the first two, it was announced Monday, would be delayed. But ships sailing to Gaza from Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and from Iran are sure to alarm Israel; both carry high potential for trouble.
Israel will certainly look for means to handle future ships quietly, as it did the Rachel Corrie, which was deterred without incident in the days after the Mavi Marmara clash. But Israel is capable of miscalculating or mishandling such episodes, as it has in the recent past; and the blockade-busters want to create tension. The greater the problems, the more attention to their cause.
For Israel, the Hamas government in Gaza poses a major security threat because of its ability to fire rockets, and a political headache, because of its refusal to recognize Israel and its charter commitment to annihilate the Jewish state. So long as Hamas controls Gaza, Israel’s government believes it must take extreme measures to curtail the flow of weapons and materials that could assist Hamas’s armed wing.
Hamas, however, has grown ever more bold despite the reversals it has suffered since it won the 2006 parliamentary elections and was promptly boycotted by Israel and most of the international community, whose aid money keeps the Palestinian economy running. Now Hamas sees a chance to not only reap some financial benefits for its administration in Gaza, but to win back some of the public support it has lost during three years of rule in Gaza characterized by economic stagnation and political authoritarianism.
Israel is on the defensive about the siege of Gaza and its commando raid on the Mavi Marmara. And Hamas has found a way to make common cause with parties from two very different categories—Islamists from outside Gaza who share Hamas’ religious agenda and hatred of Israel as well as human-rights activists who detest Hamas but want Gazans to enjoy basic rights.
The liberalizing of Israel’s blockade is a welcome development for those who have called for its suspension from within Israel, Gaza, the Palestinian Authority and from the West. But Israel has not decided to lift the blockade or allow free movement of people and goods into the narrow coastal strip, in keeping with the agreement the United States brokered in 2006 that was almost immediately scuppered; that accord would have opened the land crossings to commerce and linked Gaza and the West Bank with convoys.
For Gazans, however, the still-unimplemented loosening will be a change in degree, not in kind. For Hamas, it will be a political victory. It will claim that Israeli yielded because Hamas persevered and responded to Israel with force. And for Israel, the new regime—think of it as Blockade 2.0—will only defer the moment of reckoning when it will have to negotiate a new relationship with Gaza, a complicated matter that it has left unresolved since it pulled the Jewish settlements from Gaza in August 2005.
That’s where the next wave of boats comes in. Critics of Israel’s blockade don’t want it modified; they want it lifted. And sadly, it wasn’t political dialogue but a violent clash between commandos and men wielding pipes that prompted the first significant revision of Israel’s Gaza policy in three years.
It remains to be seen what sort of construction material the Israelis will allow into Gaza, and whether they will lift the bewildering restrictions on foodstuffs. It’s also unclear whether Gaza will be able to resume exports, kick-starting the Strip’s moribund economy that used to generate profitable crops of carnations, fruits and vegetables.
But it is clear that the Mavi Marmara incident has emboldened Hamas and its supporters, along with Gazans who don’t necessarily support Hamas and outsiders who deplore the blockade.
Until Israel redefines its relationship with Gaza, it will continue to face assaults on its policy—including blockade-runners who most likely, and unfortunately, will hope to play on Israel’s anxieties and create a re-run of the bloody Mavi Marmara incident.
Thanassis Cambanis is the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, which will be published in September. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has covered the Arab world since 2003, including four years as The Boston Globe Baghdad and Middle East bureau chief.