Brick by brick, this policy is coming apart

June 3, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Nothing has done more to establish Israel’s status as a pariah state among its neighbours than the actions of its armed forces

If an armed group of Somali pirates had yesterday boarded six vessels on the high seas, killing at least 10 passengers and injuring many more, a Nato taskforce would today be heading for the Somali coast. What happened yesterday in international waters off the coast of Gaza was the work of Israeli commandos, not pirates, and no Nato warships will in fact be heading for Israel. Perhaps they should be.

Nothing has done more to establish Israel’s status as a pariah state among its neighbours than the actions of its armed forces. Israel’s navy said it met with “pre-planned violence” when it boarded the ships and opened fire in the middle of the night. Their intention was to conduct a mass arrest, but the responsibility for the bloodshed was entirely theirs. Having placed themselves in a situation where they lost control and provoked a riot, the Israeli navy said they were forced to open fire to avoid being lynched. What did the commandos expect pro-Palestinian activists to do once they boarded the ships – invite them aboard for a cup of tea with the captain on the bridge? One of those shot and severely wounded was a Greek captain, who refused medical aid in Israel and demanded to be flown back to Greece. Presumably he, too, was threatening the lives of Israeli naval commandos.

There was nothing on board those ships that constituted a threat to Israel’s security, so Binyamin Netanyahu’s argument that his troops were acting in self-defence has no validity. They should not have been there in the first place. The convoy was carrying construction materials, electric wheelchairs and water purifiers for Gaza’s people. This was recognised by the Israeli navy, who said in a statement that it had offered to transfer the aid by land to Gaza. Four years into a blockade mounted ostensibly to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the enclave, this claim, too, is utterly specious. Two years of pressure from Washington failed to persuade Israel to let these construction materials in, for the benefit of the 5,000 families still in tents after the ruin wreaked by Operation Cast Lead. If Israel was so obdurate to the entreaties of its ally, why would it now acquiesce in the demands of its enemies? The fact is that Israel has used its blockade not only to prevent Hamas from rearming, but also to impose collective punishment – as a boot which it applied to the Palestinian throat. This pressure on the jugular has the opposite of its intended effect. Defiance has only grown in Gaza, and the Islamic resistance movement is reaping the benefits – as any Fatah man will admit.

In one operation Israel has destroyed whatever hold it had over the international community on Gaza. It is not simply the fury that it has created in Turkey, which will only grow as the bodies of its dead are buried. Egypt too is complicit, because its government has sealed the southern border of the Gaza strip. It has done so amid mounting popular opposition, and as a nervy transfer of power in Cairo is about to take place. The Egyptian government will not welcome the intense embarrassment that Israel has caused it. There were many calls yesterday for the siege to be lifted, notably from Britain’s new foreign secretary William Hague. After what Nick Clegg, his coalition partner wrote in this newspaper about Gaza last year, he could hardly do otherwise. But as Mr Clegg said, it is action, not words, that counts now.

The blockade should end, but that will only be the start of the U-turn which is now required. Closely allied to Gaza’s physical isolation is its political one. The international consensus is also crumbling on isolating Hamas by insisting it recognise Israel before it is allowed to join a national unity government with Fatah. Russia broke the taboo first two weeks ago when its president, Dmitry Medvedev, met Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, but other countries in Europe are now planning to follow suit. Brick by brick, this policy is coming apart, and in a strange way Israel is helping.