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Israel Navigates Between Inquiries

JERUSALEM, Jun 17 2010 (IPS) - Israel’s easing of its land blockade of Gaza is unlikely to lessen international pressure for a change in its policies towards the Palestinians. Nor can Israel be expected to give up its battle to undermine Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip.

On Thursday, a fortnight after the Israeli navy’s deadly raid on a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for the Hamas-ruled territory that provoked an international outcry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet voted to ‘liberalise’ the procedures under which Israel has allowed goods into Gaza for the past four years.

The tight Israeli restrictions have been in place since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections and were intensified after Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza the following year.

No specific product list was mentioned on Thursday, but the cabinet approved the passage of materials for civilian projects under international supervision, indicating Israel would allow the United Nations to take into Gaza previously-banned building material.

These materials are necessary for the reconstruction of Gaza following the devastating Israeli war on Hamas 18 months ago which resulted in many among Gaza’s 1.5 million people losing their homes or being displaced.

The security cabinet noted that “existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel” would continue.

The Israeli decision was worked out with the special Quartet envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair.

Although the cabinet announcement evaded the international demand for a lifting of Israel’s sea blockade, Blair hailed the Israeli decision as “a very important step”: “It will allow us to keep weapons and material out of Gaza. The policy vis-à-vis Gaza should be to isolate the extremists, but to help the people of Gaza,” the former British prime minister said.

In advance of the decision, Israeli officials stressed that both Blair and the U.S. had acquiesced to Israel’s demand that the sea blockade remain in force, at least until adequate alternative watertight arrangements can ensure that no weapons reach Hamas via the sea.

Despite the decision, under pressure, to ease the land siege, Israel’s sea policy is soon to be tested again.

Several upcoming peace flotillas from a number of nations, including Iran, Turkey and Lebanon will once more challenge Israel’s right to impose such a blockade. Activists say they mean to demonstrate that, like the land siege, the sea blockade too is “unsustainable”.

Embattled on another front, the legal aspect of the botched interception of the Turkish-led aid flotilla by the Israeli navy, the Netanyahu government is meanwhile busy trying to stymie the steady international pressure for a full-scale investigation.

On Monday, the government approved the appointment of a three-man public probe into what went wrong on the high seas.

The committee, headed by a retired Israeli supreme court judge, includes two well-known international “observers”, Nobel Peace laureate David Trimble of Northern Ireland and Ken Watkin, Canada’s former judge advocate general, both friendly to Israel.

The committee’s mandate, also worked out in concert with Washington, falls far short of the demand by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon for a full-fledged international inquiry commission.

Even within Israel, the committee is criticised as “most insufficient”.

However, much of the domestic criticism focuses less on the need to address Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and more on the glaring failure to justify those policies to the world.

Upon taking the decision on Monday, one minister observed, “Maybe this will ease the international pressure on us.”

“Don’t count on it,” reportedly responded Netanyahu, in a rare acknowledgement that he takes the international pressure on Israel seriously.

In another rare public departure from Israel’s strident defence of its sea operation, President Shimon Peres acknowledged that “Israel’s problem is not explaining itself properly, but justifying its policies.”

Criticising the fact the Netanyahu-appointed committee is unlikely to examine the government’s decision-making process, renowned political scientist Shlomo Avineri, writing in ‘Haaretz’, calls it, “A disgraceful evading of responsibility”.

“Much more difficult challenges face us; Israelis have the right to know how their leaders made their decisions, whether their judgment can be relied upon,” Avineri wrote in Haaretz. “It is not the decision-makers’ fate and future that hang in the balance but the fate and future of the State of Israel.”

And during the security cabinet deliberations, in another rare warning, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak told Netanyahu that Israel will find it difficult to extricate itself from its deepening international isolation, without a “daring and assertive diplomatic initiative”.

The flotilla controversy underlines first and foremost the need to re-build ties with the U.S., Barak argued: “There’s no way to rehabilitate those ties without a bold programme that addresses the core issues of a final settlement with the Palestinians. We have to realise it’s time to make major decisions and to take genuine political steps. Otherwise, Israel’s isolation will only intensify.”

Barak is due to travel to Washington soon to meet with officials of the Obama Administration. The big question is, does he have the backing of Netanyahu and the rest of the right-wing cabinet for the kind of bold initiative he is calling for.

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