Fake calls to “ease” the Gaza siege

Complicit in the siege: Mahmoud Abbas meets with Head of the EU Mission in the West Bank and Gaza, Christian Burger, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 20 June. (Thaer Ganaim/MaanImages)

Ever since Israel’s murderous attack on the Freedom Flotilla on 31 May, there have been increasing calls from many parties on Israel to end its siege of Gaza. This is strange as well as deceitful, for the siege is not Israel’s alone.

Many of those who now talk about ending the blockade have strongly supported it all along and continue to support it. Their empty calls are primarily intended to absolve themselves of blame for the harm the cruel, illegal and unjustifiable siege has caused to the Palestinian population in Gaza Strip.

It is clear now that the siege has failed, first and foremost because the brave people in Gaza decided to adjust to its harshest effects and to endure with dignity and courage the collective punishment intended to strangle them into submission and despair. They never acquiesced to trading their national dignity and rights for a few more goods — even ones desperately needed.

The siege has also failed as a result of mounting civil society pressure orchestrated by hundreds of concerned organizations and activists who kept reminding the civilized world of the illegality of the Gaza siege, the complicity of the UN through its bizarre membership in the self-appointed Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN), as well as the cruelty and double standards of the Europeans, the Americans and many others who lined up behind Israel’s decision to terrorize the entire population of Gaza for political ends.

The latest, but certainly not the last, such effort was the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which fell victim to Israel’s bloody sea and air attack, followed by hijacking and kidnapping of all the ships and passengers on board.

Israel has become increasingly concerned about the international response, often positive, to activists’ attempts to break the siege. Faced with the dilemma of either letting the Freedom Flotilla proceed to Gaza and mark the end of the siege or blocking it and face international condemnation, Israel chose the latter. But its use of terrorist violence against unarmed civilians on a peaceful convoy has caused much more serious revulsion than Israel bargained for.

Israel’s premeditated savagery was apparently intended to discourage similar efforts. If that was the goal, it failed, as reports pour in of new flotillas being organized in several countries. Thus, Israel will likely face the same dilemma again and again.

The Freedom Flotilla was not an historic incident that opened the eyes of an otherwise oblivious world to the fact that Gaza was under siege. That was very well known. What it did was to cause enormous embarrassment to all those who had, right from the start, endorsed and supported the siege.

With its barbaric attack on the Flotilla, Israel exceeded even its own usually unsurpassable contempt for international law, common decency and respect for human life. Its actions exposed the complicity of regional and international powers, forcing them to speak out or rightly be seen as silent partners in Israel’s crime.

Thus they started, one after the other, to make empty calls for the siege to end. European countries that had already committed their navies to help Israel enforce what the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed was an illegal blockade made some noises against the siege. But all they offered were proposals to better manage the blockade by having Europeans act as proxies, searching ships heading to Gaza on behalf of Israel.

This mirrors the accomplice role the Europeans volunteered for in the US-brokered 2005 agreement on the Gaza crossings, in which Europeans replaced Israeli occupation forces in impeding the movement of Palestinians, while the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt remained effectively under full Israeli supervision and veto. This amounts to institutionalizing the siege rather than demanding its removal.

Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah leader and head of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, who was reported to have pleaded with US President Barack Obama not to let Israel end the siege and thus hand Hamas an easy victory, is also now calling for lifting the blockade. But when pressed, Abbas is always careful to condition his demand on “reconciliation” between Hamas, which has survived numerous Abbas-backed coup attempts since it won the 2006 elections, and his Fatah which — with international support — usurped control of the Palestinian Authority apparatus after it lost the election.

The “reconciliation” that Abbas wants is to return to the status quo before Hamas foiled the last coup attempt in June 2007. In other words, Abbas wants for himself an easy victory — to return his forces to control Gaza and its borders — which he could not achieve through conspiracies and armed adventures.

Even the Israeli government started talking about the need to “ease” the siege. It announced it would allow everything into Gaza except for potential “dual use” items that could be used to make weapons. Press reports indicated that the list of banned items includes virtually all construction supplies, pipes for plumbing, electrical goods, cleaning supplies, fertilizer and many other items whose absence cripples Gaza’s economy. With international acquiescence, Israel succeeded in redefining building supplies as dangerous weapons, only to be allowed in under the auspices of the UN.

It remains to be seen if Israel meets even its minimal promises, but based on past experience, there is every reason to expect that these are cosmetic changes designed not to ease the siege but to ease international pressure.

The sense of deception was heightened when the Netanyahu Cabinet issued a statement in English, talking about a government decision to relax the siege, while the Hebrew version of the same statement including nothing of the sort.

Even with these measures, Gaza remains effectively a prison for all who live in it; it is as if merely giving them enough food is all that counts. Their fundamental human rights, the right to enter and exit, to study, to move around and travel, is not on anyone’s agenda.

As for the United States, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned last week that the situation with respect to Gaza was not “tenable,” she was not hinting at ending a siege that violates fundamental rights. All she meant was that the siege was not tenable politically, and thus it needs to be repackaged to make it more acceptable.

A genuine call to lift the siege would mean freeing Gaza from all restrictions, like any other international entity. No power has the authority to decide what goods should enter or be banned from entering Gaza, not even arms imports so long as all the American and European arsenals are wide open to Israel to shop freely for its military needs while Israel is the aggressor, the occupier and the constant violator of international law. It is people under occupation and siege who need to be empowered to free themselves and to recover their stolen dignity.

Rather than claim that plumbing material and cement are weapons, it would be much better for Israel’s friends to urge it to talk to Hamas and accept one of Hamas’ many truce offers if it is serious about ending the violence that its occupation and brutality have caused.

Any genuine calls to lift the siege should also make sure that the Israeli monopoly on power in the region and its reign of lawlessness and terror are brought to an end.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan Times and is republished with the author’s permission.