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A Hamas policeman looks at the passports of Palestinians waiting to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip June 1, 2010. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
A Hamas policeman looks at the passports of Palestinians waiting to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip June 1, 2010. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Israel defends actions, turns attention to weakened blockade Add to ...

The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is digging in its heels. Despite world criticism, the Prime Minister insists that Israeli forces were right to board and prevent an aid flotilla from reaching Gaza on Monday. Not only that, the government has made it clear it will order it done again if other ships try to run the blockade it sees as critical to its survival.

To this government, the determination to prevent any crack in the blockade of Gaza is nothing less than an existential battle against Iran and its protégé Hamas.

"The world … must understand," Mr. Netanyahu was reported telling his security cabinet Tuesday, "that [the ability to bar ships from Gaza]is crucial to preserving Israel's security and to the right of the State of Israel to defend itself.

"Gaza is a terror state funded by the Iranians, and therefore we must try to prevent any weapons from being brought into Gaza by air, sea or land," he said.

Barry Rubin, director of Israel's Global Research in International Affairs Center, believes the world should have little difficulty understanding the intensity of the threat felt by Israelis.

"Hamas has oppressed the people of the Gaza Strip. [It has]murdered Palestinian Authority supporters in hospitals and thrown them off roofs; driven the Christians out; taken relief supplies for its own soldiers; launched a war on Israel in December 2008 that caused avoidable death and destruction, and used civilians as human shields and mosques for ammunition dumps," Mr. Rubin said.

Hamas should be overthrown, not placated, he said. "Yet this rather obvious idea simply does not seem to have occurred to any Western government or elite."

Instead, Mr. Rubin said, Israel must content itself with "a policy, albeit an eroding one, of isolating Hamas and denying it at least some supplies and money, demanding that it accepts the idea of real peace with Israel and cease the use of terrorism.

"In the face of this very profound and essential wrongness, precisely what measures Israel takes toward a half-dozen vessels seeking to break the blockade that much of the world supports seems a rather secondary issue."

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted Israel was within its rights to board the vessels. "This is not the first time Israel has stopped ships in international waters," he said. "When a ship refuses to accede to warnings and obey instructions, we have the right to board it [under] international law."

Not necessarily, says Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, who notes that the only justification for forcibly boarding a ship on the high seas is self-defence. Even then, the action taken must be "necessary and proportionate." Given what is known about Israel's boarding of the aid flotilla, "the action does not appear to have been necessary, in that the threat was not imminent," Prof. Byers said.

Danny Ayalon, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, argued that allowing the flotilla to reach Gaza would have opened "a corridor of arms-smuggling." The blockade, he said, is "aimed at preventing the infiltration of terror and terrorists into Gaza."

That may be, but it doesn't qualify as legal self-defence, says Prof. Byers. "To say that this blockade would be jeopardized by the flotilla and that some time down the road weapons might come into Gaza as a result, and thereby pose a threat to Israel, is to stretch the definition of self defence way further than anyone ever countenanced," he said.

There is nevertheless good reason for the blockade, says David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post. "I can't imagine how bad it would have been" for Israelis if there hadn't been a blockade for the past three years, he said. As it is, thousands of rockets have been fired on the people of southern Israel over the past several years.

Whatever the arguments in favour of it, however, the blockade is quickly being eroded.

On Tuesday, Egypt, which had been maintaining a blockade alongside Israel, opened its border with Gaza. Until now, Egypt had been allowing only a small number of people with serious medical needs to pass through the crossing. Now, the Rafah border is open for products to come in and people to go out. No closing date has been announced.

The Gaza blockade is no longer sustainable, says Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel. It may help to stop Hamas attacks on Israel, but it seriously damages Israel's international reputation, he told The New York Times. "[Washington's]responsibility to Israel is to help them find a way out of this situation," he said.

Ehud Olmert reached the same conclusion after the assault on Gaza last year. Israel's prime minister at the time, Mr. Olmert came close to making a deal with Hamas that would have largely lifted the blockade in exchange for an end to the firing of rockets on Israel. Five days before the election that brought Mr. Netanyahu to power, the agreement collapsed, reportedly when Mr. Olmert insisted that Hamas also release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

In much the same way, Mr. Indyk says the Obama administration sees the wisdom of a package deal in which Hamas commits to preventing attacks from, and smuggling into, Gaza. In return, Israel would drop the blockade and allow trade in and out. "That deal would have to include a prisoner swap in which Gilad Shalit is finally freed," he added.

Despite the bravado about maintaining the blockade at all cost, even Mr. Netanyahu seems to be bending in this direction. His spokesman, Mark Regev, said Tuesday that Israel would consider ways to ease the blockade to allow more goods into Gaza - a policy that has been quietly under way in recent months.

"We have been expanding the assistance that has been going into the Gaza Strip - both the volume and the variety of goods - and we have ongoing dialogue with the international community," Mr. Regev said.

But he stressed that Israel could not completely end the blockade, fearing that Hamas would ship rockets and other weapons into the area. "We cannot have unfettered naval cargo going into the Gaza Strip," he said.

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