x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Doubts on the ground as Israel cabinet votes to loosen Gaza blockade

PLO dismisses as inadequate move that would allow civilian household items into Gaza but still block exports.

RAMALLAH // The Israeli government yesterday voted to allow more goods into Gaza, slightly easing its years-long blockade of the impoverished strip of land, in a move denounced as insufficient by Palestinian politicians of all stripes.

The security cabinet vote came after more than two weeks of sustained international pressure following Israel's raid on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian supplies that left nine Turkish activists dead. A statement released from the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said Israel would "expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision" but "continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war material".

There was no word on how the new policy would be implemented and there is no change in the maritime blockade. Under the new measures Gazans will not be able to export to the outside world. The statement, moreover, did not specify what products will be allowed through, although Palestinian sources suggested Gazans will now be able to import all food items, toys, stationery, kitchen utensils, mattresses and towels.

The entry of building materials will continue to be restricted, though Israel allows a limited amount of cement through for United Nations projects. The news was welcomed cautiously in some quarters of the international community. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said the EU stood ready to support Israel's stated intention to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip with a mission on the ground. "I look with great interest at what the Israeli cabinet is saying. This is an in-principle statement ... obviously the detail is what matters," Ms Ashton said yesterday.

The EU had earlier endorsed a plan by Tony Blair, the representative of an international quartet comprising the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, in which Israel would draw up a plan for banned goods, rather than one of permitted goods, in an effort to free up trade. The Israeli announcement falls short of that measure, although Mr Blair is likely to see the announcement as a step forward.

The UN was less enthusiastic, with the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon saying yesterday he was "encouraged" by Israel's decision, but that the UN "continues to seek a fundamental change in policy". Palestinians, meanwhile, criticised the move as insufficient. Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator said in a statement: "With this decision, Israel attempts to make it appear that it has eased its four-year blockade and its even longer-standing access and movement restrictions imposed on the population of Gaza. "The facts are that a siege against 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip continues. Either Israel lifts the siege completely or it continues to violate international law and basic morality." Hamas officials also rejected the announcement as a media stunt. Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, said the goods now permitted entry were of "secondary importance", citing especially the need in Gaza for construction materials. "What is needed is a complete lifting of the blockade. Goods and people must be free to enter and leave."

While the announcement marks a climbdown for the Israel, which had vowed to maintain the blockade against the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, there is little sign that it will hurt Mr Netanyahu politically. Yossi Alpher, a Tel Aviv-based Israeli analyst, said: "Netanyahu has been able to play the nationalist card very successfully in the wake of the raid. Part of this is the failure of the opposition to take advantage of the fiasco, part of it is that the antagonist in this case is seen as Islamist Turkey. All of it allows Netanyahu to make these kinds of concessions without losing popular support." In fact, argued Mr Alpher, the easing of the blockade, however successfully Mr Netanyahu is able to present it domestically, marks an "out-and-out victory for Hamas". "Israel could long ago have sent a message to Hamas that it would discuss relaxing the blockade to see what Hamas would give in return. As it is, Hamas made absolutely no concessions and hasn't been asked to make a concession."

The real impact on the ground in Gaza is likely to be minimal. The reconstruction of more than 6,000 buildings that the Israeli army destroyed during its offensive in 2008-2009 has yet to begin, along with crucial infrastructure repair work, and cannot get off the ground until construction materials are allowed in to the enclave. Industry, meanwhile, which has been decimated by the blockade is also unlikely to feel any change. The point is not lost on ordinary Gazans. "Are we supposed to be grateful to Israel now?" said Eyad Sarraj, a Gazan psychiatrist and political activist. "Giving some chocolate to sweeten the siege is not the answer. The answer is complete freedom and sovereignty." @Email:okarmi@thenational.ae With additional reporting by Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv.