Middle East

Tensions Remain despite Pledge to Ease Gaza Blockade

An iron wall at the Egypt entrance into Gaza.

Israel's government last week agreed to relax its four-year blockade on the Gaza Strip, but the fallout from the recent flotilla incident lingers. With Israeli-U.S. relations somewhat frayed of late, U.S. President Barack Obama called the move "a step in the right direction."

Israel has come under intense international criticism for the deaths of nine Turks onboard the Mavi Marmara, one of six boats that tried to breach the naval blockade on May 31. Former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble is one of two foreign observers to a committee set up to look into the clash, described as a diversion by critics such as Turkey who want an international investigation.

Israel maintains that its soldiers were set upon first by members of a controversial Turkish group known in English acronym form as the IHH. Israeli Defence Force spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Liebovich told a press conference that video evidence proves that the fourth Israeli soldier to land on the boat was the first to open fire on the IHH contingent, after three colleagues were already attacked with iron bars.

Israel has been accused of heavy handedness in dealing with the ship, and many Israelis I spoke with this week criticized the planning and methods used to deal with the flotilla. Alon Pinkas recently served as Israeli Consul-General to the United States. Speaking at the closing of the "Media in Conflicts Seminar" in Tel-Aviv on Friday, he said, "Israel has never been in a worse place in world opinion," but added that some of this opprobrium comes from a misperception among liberal opinion in the West that "Israel is a colonizer" akin to the French and British empires.

Previously Israel ruled out changing Gaza policy without progress on freeing Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in a cross-border raid in 2006. Contrary to international law, Hamas has not given the Red Cross access to Mr. Shalit, who has been held incommunicado. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, deemed a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. On Thursday a Hamas spokesman described Israel's decision to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip as "a new trick aiming at enhancing the siege's image and securing its continuation instead of lifting and ending it." Hamas does not recognize Israel and its charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Now Gaza is at the center of some regional chest-pounding. Leibovich would not discuss rumors that Saudi Arabia will turn a blind eye should Israel fly over its territory to attack suspected nuclear sites in Iran. Turkey, once Israel's closest ally in the region and still the second-biggest army in NATO, is seemingly moving to the east, with an Islamist party in power and the prospect of E.U. membership ever more distant.

The Israeli government is warning Lebanon, Iran and Turkey against sending boats or allowing boats to depart, to try to breach the blockade, raising concerns that more sea-borne clashes could ensue. Israel points out that it has previously intercepted arms cargoes on the Mediterranean, coming from Iran and destined for Hamas.

Inside Gaza itself, the impact of all this hits hard, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The day before Israel announced the relaxation, the Red Cross deemed the blockade a violation of the Geneva Conventions, as it involves a collective punishment of the Palestinian people inside Gaza, also contrary to the laws of war that say civilians should not be made to suffer for the actions of armed groups. The Red Cross said that the blockade is choking off any real possibility of economic development, with the quality of the territory's healthcare system at an all-time low. Israel's relaxation does not affect the sea blockade of Gaza or its ban on the private import of building materials, saying that these will only be allowed into Gaza under international supervision.

This article was originally published by RTE News: http://www.rte.ie/news/worldreport/.

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