Israel will not loosen naval blockade of Gaza

As we reported earlier, Israel will maintain its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip even as it accedes to international demands to ease the military-administered sanctions it imposes on the coastal territory.

Israel’s security cabinet met on Sunday, as did the full cabinet. A decision was taken to allow into Gaza (via land crossings only) all materials which are not weapons or “materials used to make weapons” (this could be a very broad list, including sugar).

But boats will not be allowed to travel directly to Gaza.

The Israeli naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space was declared on 3 January 2009, as it began the ground phase of its Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009).

Any boats with humanitarian cargo destined for Gaza will be invited — as in the recent past — to proceed to Israel’s Ashdod Port to offload their cargo, a high-ranking IDF officer told members of the Foreign Press Association in Israel in a briefing held on Thursday in Tel Aviv.

However, he said, if these ships are coming from enemy states (including Lebanon, and probably also Iran), they will be subjected to much more stringent security inspections than even the Freedom Flotilla or earlier Free Gaza expeditions.

“The level of inspection will have to be different”, he said.

This IDF officer also said that Israel would retain — and would not delegate to any other naval force, whether European, American or Egyptian — ultimate responsibility for inspections of any and all cargo destined for Gaza. He said there would be no giving up of “my direct responsibility to see what’s getting into Gaza — and therefore we’d like to inspect the boats ourselves”

A Lebanese boat which was due to leave for Gaza today will apparently be barred from leaving port, according to news reports today that Lebanese sources say it is illegal for a vessel to leave a Lebanese port if its destination is an Israeli, or even an Israeli-controlled, port (including Gaza’s relatively small harbor).

According to various media reports, organizers of a planned all-women expedition, on board what has been named the “Maryam” boat (there are reportedly two boats that planned to travel together in the Lebanese expedition), have so far not even applied for the necessary permits to authorize their departure. The organizers had said they would leave from Tripoli, and carry medical supplies for cancer patients.

Just under a month ago, the Cyprus Government barred any ships from leaving its harbors if bound for Gaza, because of the formal declared Israeli Naval blockade which has so far gone unchallenged by any government, to the dismay of some of the participants in the Free Gaza or Freedom Flotilla expeditions, who have said their intention is to “break the siege”, or even to “break the blockade” of Gaza, which they declare is illegal (without making much of a distinction between the sanctions imposed at the Israeli land crossings, and the formal Israeli Naval blockade.

On Friday, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev sent a letter on Friday to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and to the current President of the UN Security Council (the Ambassador of Mexico), stating that “Israel reserves its right under international law to use all necessary means to prevent these ships from violating the existing naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip.” She also warned that if the Lebanese expedition sails, it could “affect the peace and security of the region”, and she asserted that “There exists a possible link between the organizers of the ships in question and the terrorist group Hezbollah”.

On Thursday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that Lebanon would be held responsible for any “violent and dangerous confrontation.”

Amos Harel reported in Haaretz on Thursday that “Over the past few days, a few reservists from the naval commando unit have been called up for service”.

Meanwhile, there is also at least one Iranian ship that may be on its way to Gaza, as well.

An Egyptian newspaper [“A-Dar”] reported Friday that Israel asked Egypt to prevent ships from Iran reaching Gaza via the Suez Canal on the grounds that Iran is aiding Hamas to work against Egypt. It had earlier been reported that the Iranian ships would carry hundreds of passengers on board. The Egyptian newspaper stated, however, that it is not possible to prevent the passage of any ship through the canal because of international laws. This was reported in the Jerusalem Post here .

And Haaretz reported, according to reports in other Arab media [in particular, al-Quds al-Arabi in London], that “more than 12 ships” — Israeli and American — have just passed through the Suez Canal, apparently on their way to the Red Sea or points beyond. “According to the report, thousands of Egyptian soldiers were deployed along the Suez Canal guarding the ships’ passage, which included a U.S. aircraft carrier. The Suez Canal is a strategic Egyptian waterway which connects between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. According to eye witnesses, the U.S. battleships were the largest to have crossed the Canal in many years, Al-Quds reported”. This can be read in full here.

The Quartet Middle East Envoy Tony Blair, who said he spent several hours meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on Sunday, said in an interview on BBC World Television that the Israeli cabinet decision today to rework its control of Israeli land crossings into Gaza was “a significant change in policy”. Blair said to the interviewer that “The truth is that life has been difficult for people in Gaza”, but with this change in policy, he said he thought it would now be possible for basic household goods and materials for [UN-supervised] construction projects to get into Gaza — and that there would also be an “expansion of commercial possibilities as well”. There has been almost no export allowed from Gaza since the Hamas victory in January 2006 elections held in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Blair called for the immediate release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured at the end of June 2006 at Kerem Shalom. Blair said that if this happened, Israeli was prepared to release “many, many hundreds of Palestinian prisoners”…

Blair also noted that “well over half of the population of the Gaza Strip [1.5 million souls] is under the age of 20 — and 25 percent of the population is under the age of four”…

The Israeli military announced Sunday afternoon that the capacity of the Kerem Shalom crossing — one of six — into Gaza will be increased tomorrow by 30 percent, allowing, they said, some 130 trucks a day to enter.

For several years, it has been the aim of the Israeli government to channel all goods going in — and out — of Gaza through this Kerem Shalom crossing, something which Palestinian representatives had opposed for partially obscure reasons, including the limited capacity there. However, the Israeli military, which administers the sanctions regime against Gaza, has been gradually but relentlessly consolidating its preference for using this crossing, located at the inner southernmost point of Gaza’s border (where Israel, Egypt, and Gaza meet).

With today’s announcement, the imposition of the Israeli policy concerning preferential use of Kerem Shalom, appears to be near complete.

When the Rafah crossing with Egypt was briefly opened under a 2005 agreement on movement and access negotiated by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, European Union officials stood at the Rafah Crossing to observe the Palestinian officials work, but the entire process was monitored in real time by remote control technology operated by Israelis at Kerem Shalom.

On Al-Jazeera English-language television Sunday night, Fatah official Sabri Saydem said that the changes concerning the seige on Gaza announced by the Israeli government today are “totally insignificant”, and noted that the movement of people in and out of Gaza is still impossible.

Sari Bashi, the Executive Director of GISHA — the Israeli human rights organization which has fought valiantly in the Israeli courts to lift the sanctions imposed on the people of Gaza — expressed the hope, Sunday evening, that “the tight restrictions on movement imposed on Gaza will indeed be loosened”. She added, in a statement, that “It is important to reduce burdensome restrictions on the activities of international humanitarian organizations, including those seeking to rebuild in Gaza, but residents of Gaza have a right not just to receive humanitarian assistance but also to travel and to engage in productive work. A policy consistent with international law would allow free passage of raw materials into Gaza, export of finished goods, and the travel of persons not just for ‘humanitarian’ reasons but also for work, study, and family unity – subject only to reasonable security checks. That is also the policy most responsive to Israeli security concerns. Travel between the West Bank and Gaza is particularly important for the health of Palestinian civil society. Gisha notes that there is no need to come up with additional lists of ‘prohibited goods’. Israel has already incorporated such a list into its internal legislation – the list of ‘dual-use goods’ that reflects international consensus regarding regulation of goods that are primarily civilian but can also be used for military purposes. Cement and other building materials are not on that list, because, according to the definition in Israeli and international law, they are not suitable for military use“…

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