Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why Israel Should Ease The Gaza Blockade

Today, Egypt opened the Rafah crossing on its border with the Gaza Strip for the first time the border checkpoint has been open on a regular basis since 2007. The move is likely to generate confidence among the Egyptian public in the transitional government, and a sense of hope in the country's future. It also is a step towards delegitimizing tunnels which run under the Egypt-Gaza border and are used largely for smuggling weapons. And it puts a renewed focus on Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip, a policy which is widely criticized in the Arab world, and in the international community.

Given Israel's legitimate concern over weapons smuggling, choking off supply lines of Kassam and Grad rockets which are targeted at Israeli civilians remains a security requirement. However, bans on items such as nutmeg, chocolate, size A4 paper, and goats generate a far higher security risk in Arab and international ill-will then they prevent in blockage (Note: some of the items on this May 2010 list, such as potato chips were removed following the Gaza flotilla incident).

As the bid for Palestinian statehood in September comes closer and closer each passing day, Israel has two security objectives to meet. First, it must demonstrate a credible commitment to the words spoken by Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington last week. Second, it must garner as much international support as possible. Given the hard-headed approach of the Israeli Foreign Ministry these past few years, playing diplomatic catch-up will be no small feat.

Given these requirements, easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip next week would be an excellent move by the Israeli government. Even exempting dual-use items like concrete, easing restrictions on the flow of goods would have significant security benefits for the Jewish State.

The move would first and foremost demonstrate a credible commitment to improving the lives of Palestinians. One of the major concerns of Israeli pundits was that Netanyahu's remarks were just words, which would not be followed up with action. Easing the blockade would show that Netanyahu is serious about working proactively with Palestinians.

The move would also help to de-fang Hamas, which brews some of its public support off the anger Palestinians feel towards Israel over the blockade. Given the recent Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, easing the blockade could also be used for Israel as leverage against Hamas ("We did this for you, now what will you do for us?").

Easing the blockade would also delegitimize the latest Gaza flotilla, the political value of which Turkey has already exploited. The flotilla is set to arrive at the end of June, so easing the blockade now would be perfectly timed. It would be too late to avoid the policy change becoming irrelevant, and too early for the flotilla activists to claim it was their actions which caused it.

Easing the blockade would also go a long way to raising Israel's status in the international community. The Egyptian transitional government could point to an Israeli easing of the blockade as the result of its efforts, multiplying public confidence in the government, and bolstering Israel-Egypt relations at this time of great uncertainty. It would also delegitimize the argument that the siege amounts to collective punishment on Gaza's two million residents. Israel could also leverage an easing of the blockade in talks with countries holding veto power in the UN Security Council. Their support come September will be critical for Israel. The same tactic could be used by the United States, which would also appreciate the diplomatic leverage the policy change would create.

With the eyes of the world on Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu's administration has the opportunity to maximize the impact of his words in Washington this past week. Given the current international climate, and serious threats to Israel's short and long-term security, easing the Gaza blockade would go a long way in creating the conditions both on the ground and in the international community that Israel will need come September.

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