After locking itself up for hours on end, Israel’s security cabinet finally emerged to announce an easing of its blockade on Gaza, a move immediately welcomed by the United States. Israel and the U.S. hope to defuse world outrage over the collective punishment of the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there and to prevent future flotillas from trying to break the siege.
Will they succeed? It is tempting to think that the flagrant illegality of attacking unarmed humanitarians on the open seas is bound to lead to an end to the blockade. However, Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani has warned against over-optimism. He notes that after the horror of Israel’s 2008-9 attacks on Gaza the blockade was not only kept in place; it was tightened.
Yet America and Israel are fighting a losing battle in their efforts to devise a kinder, gentler blockade for the simple reason that there is no such thing. Activists, the United Nations, and the human rights community are saying more loudly than ever that the blockade is against the law — international law.
Activists appear to have the upper hand at the moment, as more ships head to Gaza to try to break Israel’s naval blockade. And they are being organized not only by groups in Iran, Lebanon and Turkey; European Jews for a Just Peace are also organizing a flotilla.
EJJP, an umbrella group of Jewish groups from 10 European countries, plans to deliver humanitarian aid but its purpose is primarily political. The activists want to focus attention on the "immoral" blockade. And, German organizer Edith Lutz told The Huffington Post, "We are frightened that Israeli policies will help anti-Semitism. We also want to show that these actions are not Jewish.
Meanwhile, UN organizations have lined up in the past few weeks to counter Israeli claims that there is no "humanitarian crisis." The World Health Organization has warned that the health system is on the verge of collapse. The UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory has said that Gaza’s agricultural sector is suffocating, noting that the "absurdity" of a situation in which Gaza’s coastal population is forced to import fish through tunnels. And the UN Secretary General repeatedly says that the blockade must be completely lifted.
The most damning report in recent weeks has perhaps been that of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC rarely speaks out, but it has clearly stated that the closure constitutes collective punishment in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law. And, should anyone need affirmation that there is no such thing as a better blockade, the ICRC says the hardship facing Gaza’s Palestinians cannot be addressed by providing more humanitarian aid: "The only sustainable solution is to lift the closure."
The way Israel plans to ease the blockade gets nowhere near lifting the closure. For example, all food will be allowed in — but not materials that will enable Palestinians to grow their own food. And Israel’s "security envelope" will remain in place, including the naval blockade.
Why is Israel so eager to maintain its siege when even Israeli strategists are saying that its purpose — to dislodge or weaken Hamas and its resistance — has not and cannot be achieved?
There are persistent reports that a major Israeli reason could be access to and control of Gaza’s gas fields, valued at some $4 billion. Such reports might sound hard to believe — until one considers that Israel has been tapping the West Bank’s water for decades and that the illegal Wall it is building in the West Bank conveniently encircles the Palestinians’ strategic aquifers. Writing about the Gaza gas deals in the Guardian in 2007, Arthur Neslen notes that Hamas has persistently called for the renegotiation of the contract negotiated with BG Group.
Meanwhile, human rights activists are turning to the courts — a move that may at last grab Israel’s attention. The Free Gaza Movement, organizers of the flotilla Israel attacked on May 31, is currently working with attorneys in a number of countries to pursue legal action on behalf of those killed or badly injured.
Here’s a question: Since the blockade is illegal under international law, could the Palestinians of Gaza organize some kind of class action suit against Israel and seek compensation for the agonies they have suffered since 2006? For all those dead due to lack of access to care? The children stunted due to malnourishment? The school years lost, the crops and land and infrastructure destroyed. The list is long, but it is long past time to total up and claim the costs of Israel’s occupation.