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Israel Must Continue Gaza Blockade, Says ... Mahmoud Abbas?

There couldn’t be much more pressure on Israel at the moment to end the blockade on Gaza.

Following the traumatic flotilla raid, the international community has determined that Israel deserves to do penance for the events on the Marmara by lifting its “siege” on Gaza. The pressure is coming from all sides, though most heavily from Europe. Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero has decided that the European Union has to “exert strong diplomatic pressure” on Israel to stop blockading Gaza. Egypt’s Amr Moussa, the current head of the Arab League, made a rare visit to Gaza and declared that the League would go to the UN to demand Israel lift the blockade. Even the Obama administration has joined in, calling the blockade “unsustainable.” Internally, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says the Gazan economy is “collapsing under the siege.”

Israel has serious reasons to oppose opening the Gaza borders. On a security level, it does not want materials to enter Gaza that it has good reason to believe will be used by Hamas as weaponry to attack Israel. But on a political and moral level, there is Gilad Shalit. The central role that Shalit’s captivity plays in Israeli public opposition to ending or easing the blockade on Gaza is not fully communicated overseas, but domestically, it dominates. No Israeli government can be seen as handing over important bargaining chips as long as the Israeli soldier remains in enemy hands, as he has for four years in conditions that are in complete violation of international regulations regarding the treatment of prisoners. The Israeli public isn’t in the mood to ease up on Hamas as Shalit’s human rights are deprived.

And yet, the force of the international pressure is difficult to resist. The Netanyahu government has made moves to “revamp” the restrictions on goods and movement in and out of Gaza, while at the same time declaring the restrictions will not be lifted completely.

On the surface, it seems as if the Arab world is united in its call to “Free Gaza.” However, while leaders of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank publicly chastise Israel for maintaining the “Gaza prison,” some sources whisper a different story.

According to a report in Ha’aretz, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has let it be known that he isn’t very happy about the prospect of a “Free Gaza,” and he even let President Obama know it at their meeting last week:

European diplomats updated by the White House on the talks said that Abbas had stressed to Obama the need of opening the border crossings into the Gaza Strip and the easing of the siege, but only in ways that do not bolster Hamas.

One of the points that Abbas raised is that the naval blockade imposed by Israel on the Strip should not be lifted at this stage. The European diplomats said Egypt has made it clear to Israel, the U.S, and the European Union that it is also opposes the lifting of the naval blockade because of the difficulty in inspecting the ships that would enter and leave the Gaza port.

Abbas told Obama that actions easing the blockage should be done with care and undertaken gradually so it will not be construed as a victory for Hamas. The Palestinian leader also stressed that the population in the Gaza Strip must be supported, and that pressure should be brought to bear on Israel to allow more goods, humanitarian assistance, and building materials for reconstruction. Abbas, however, said this added aid can be done by opening land crossings and other steps that do not include the lifting of the naval blockade.

The Palestinians immediately slapped a denial on the report, calling it “baseless.” But the story has a ring of truth to it.

After all, much of the justification for the blockade policy had been based in it strengthening the PA as opposed to Hamas, following Hamas’ violent ouster of the PA in 2007. While it may not be politically correct on the Palestinian street to admit it out loud, what is good for Hamas is bad for Fatah and the PA. The international support for Hamas post-flotilla hurts their position.

It also puts Egypt in a more precarious position. The Egyptian authorities, like their West Bank counterparts, affect an outward solidarity with their suffering Arab brothers. Yet they are far from enthusiastic about having open borders with a Hamas-controlled Gaza. Israel has not exactly had to twist their arm to get them to keep a close watch on the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egyptian border.

The pressure following the flotilla incident forced Egypt to open the Rafah border, albeit in a limited manner. But the press reports that, behind closed diplomatic doors, Egypt has made it clear that it does not want boats freely sailing in and out of Gaza’s port any more than Israel does:

Egypt has told the U.S. and European countries that the maritime blockade should not be lifted because it would be too difficult to inspect ships entering Gaza to ensure they do not carry weaponry. Egypt regards Hamas as a dangerous neighbor, and fears the Islamic group’s contacts with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt.

Hamas was clearly feeling its suddenly powerful position vis-a-vis the PA and Egypt on Sunday, when it boldly rebuffed attempts to revive an Egyptian-led reconciliation effort with Fatah — which many believe is essential to end the blockade. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Hamas has rejected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s offer to dispatch a Fatah delegation to the Gaza Strip to discuss ways of ending the power struggle between the two parties, Fatah officials in Ramallah said over the weekend.

Hamas’s refusal to receive the delegation comes as the two sides face growing pressure from several Arab and Islamic countries to patch up their differences so as to pave the way for the lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Presumably, in the current atmosphere, Hamas is confident that it can get the blockade lifted without making any concessions, so it is not quite as desperate as the rest of the world to ease the conditions in Gaza.

So what are those conditions exactly?

One interesting consequence of the Gaza flotilla crisis is the way it has brought mainstream media into Gaza to report the situation on the ground more extensively than they have done in a long time. The Los Angeles Times writes:

The stores are stocked with food, electronics, furniture, and clothing, much of it smuggled from Egypt through illegal tunnels. Cafes offer espresso and croissants. A shipment of 2010 Hyundai sedans recently arrived. Now that school is out for the summer, families are flocking to the beach to eat ice cream and barbecue.

To be sure, the description is given together with a description of undersupplied hospitals and children suffering and dying because they are not permitted out of the Strip to reach hospitals that can offer them surgery they cannot obtain locally.

Even Taghreed al-Khodary — a Gaza resident herself who served for years as the New York Times correspondent there, and is now living abroad as a fellow at the Carnegie Institute — admits that the political and symbolic value of the flotilla efforts far outweigh anything they contribute to Gaza on a practical level:

The people in Gaza are not in need of humanitarian aid. They need the Israeli blockade to end, access and exposure to the outside world, a formal economy, and freedom.

Despite the international demonization of their intentions towards the people of Gaza, the vast majority of Israelis would be more than happy to make all of this available to them. But they need to believe that such a move wouldn’t be construed as an invitation to once again rain rockets on southern Israel.

Most importantly, they insist Gilad Shalit be given the opportunity to enjoy “access and exposure to the outside world” and freedom, as well.