Tension Grows as Israel Releases New Gaza Blockade Rules

Introduction

Israel on Monday dropped its long-standing restrictions on allowing consumer goods into the Gaza Strip but retained limits on desperately needed construction materials, redefining the rules of its heavily criticized Gaza embargo on the eve of the Israeli prime minister’s trip to the White House. The new rules, which come in response to an international outcry following a deadly Israeli raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, should bring some relief to Gaza’s 1.5 million people.

Misquoting Davutoglu

Two newspapers have quoted Turkey’s foreign minister saying his country will cut diplomatic ties with Israel if it does not apologize for a deadly raid on Gaza ship or accept international investigation into the incident. The statement during an interview with Turkish reporters was the most explicit threat to date that Turkey could sever ties. But it immediately became the subject of dispute inside Turkey. The Turkish government issued no official comment on the interview, but a senior government official said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had been misquoted.

Hurriyet Daily News, the English-language version of the leading newspaper in Hurriyet, quoted Davutoglu as saying in Turkish on his plane while returning from Kyrgyzstan on Sunday that “Israelis have three options: They will either apologize or acknowledge an international-impartial inquiry and its conclusions. Otherwise, our diplomatic ties will be cut off.” (CBC) Davutoglu also said there was now a blanket ban in place on all Israeli military aircraft using Turkish airspace, not just on a case-by-case basis. Today’s Zaman, the English edition of the pro-government newspaper Zaman, quoted Davutoglu as saying, “There are three options ahead: it will either apologize or it will consent to a study by an international commission or the relations will break off.” (CBC) The Turkish official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Davutoglu said only that relations with Israel would not improve unless it apologizes or accepts an international probe. The newspaper reporters said they did not record the interview and the Turkish official said the government would not release a recording it had made. He did not explain why.

Secret Meeting

Davutoglu’s office told The Associated Press that he laid out Turkey’s conditions for improved ties with Israel during a secretly held meeting with Israel’s Industry Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer last week. Turkey said then it conveyed demands to Israel but Davutoglu told Hurriyet: “We will not wait forever for an answer. It will be enough of if their own commission rules that the raid was unfair and they apologize in line with the commission’s verdict, but we have to see the verdict first.” (Reuters)

Turkey Standoff

Turkey withdrew its ambassador to protest the deadly Israeli raid on blockade-bustling aid ships, which killed nine Turks and a Turkish-American on May 31. Turkish officials have said the envoy will not return until Israel takes steps to meet its demands. It is also barring some Israeli military planes from using its airspace and has pulled out of an upcoming naval search and rescue exercise with Israel and the United States in the Mediterranean. Turkey has said it is committed to binding contracts with Israeli companies, but further business is in doubt.

Turkey’s ambassador to Washington warned last month that public sentiment could force his country to break relations with Israel unless Israel apologizes, but did not go as far as Davutoglu’s quoted statements in laying out an immediate threat to do so.

Israel’s Refusal to Apologize

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in Latvia that his country had no intentions of apologizing. “We don’t have any intention to apologize. We think that the opposite is true,” he told reporters during a visit to Latvia. (Reuters) Israel insists its commandos acted in self-defence after being attacked by pro-Palestinian activists and has launched its own probe into the incident, which began last week. Israel said its commandos opened fire only after a boarding party was attacked by activists wielding clubs and knives.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed regret for the loss of life, but said “Israel cannot apologize for soldiers being forced to defend themselves from a mob that almost slaughtered them.” (CBC) Foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP news agency: “When you want an apology, you don’t use threats or ultimatums.” (BBC)

Activists on board the Mavi Marmara say lethal force was used from the start of the raid by Israeli forces. The vessel was part of a flotilla trying to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Amid mounting international pressure following the raid, Israel last month announced it would ease its four-year blockade of the territory. Israel has rejected a proposal by U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon for an international investigation.

New Blockade Blacklist

On Monday, Israel published a revamped blacklist of items barred from entry into the Gaza Strip. Long-standing restrictions on allowing consumer goods into Gaza are being dropped. Construction materials, badly needed in Gaza, will only be permitted in under supervision for use by organizations such as the UN. Israel unveiled two categories of materials that will remain under restrictions. The first category includes materials that could be used for bombs or other weapons, including certain fertilizers, ball bearings, lathes and their parts, hunting knives, machetes, and night vision goggles. The second list includes construction materials that will only be allowed to enter Gaza for some Palestinian Authority-authorized projects.

“While such items are liable to be used for Hamas military purposes (building bunkers, fortifying positions and digging tunnels) Israel will permit their entry into Gaza so as to facilitate construction projects in Gaza – authorized by the PA and implemented and monitored by the international community,” the Israeli government said in a statement. (CNN)

The Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, said the measures were “worthless” and of no use to the Palestinians living there. Israel says its blockade is needed to prevent the supply of weapons to Hamas.

Recent History between Israel/Turkey

Turkey and Israel forged strong military trade ties following Ankara’s recognition of Israel in 1949. The two countries had forged a friendship in the 1990s largely based on military cooperation and intelligence sharing, but trade ties have also thrived. But relations have cooled in recent years. The Turkish government headed by the AK Party – which has Islamist roots – strongly criticized the raid launched by Israel in Gaza in December 2008. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke out forcefully against the Israeli offensive because of that raid, and this started a downward spiral between Israel and Turkey. In January 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, after a clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres. In January this year, Israel was forced to apologize over the way its deputy foreign minister treated the Turkish ambassador.

Turkey has improved relations with neighbours such as Iran and Syria in recent years and Erdogan became a popular figure among Muslim countries for championing the Palestinian cause.

Lieberman said Israel had concerns about Turkey’s foreign policy, including Ankara’s decision to vote against a new round of U.N. sanctions against Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program. Non-permanent members Turkey and Brazil, which had agreed with Iran to a nuclear fuel swap deal, were the only countries in the 15-member council to vote against the resolution. “We really see some real dramatic changes in their policy. But it’s their right. It’s their decision.” (Reuters)

Other Countries’ Perspectives

The United States wants Israel and Turkey, whose earlier friendship had benefited U.S. policy in the Middle East, to patch up the whole dispute. President Barack Obama is due to meet Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on Tuesday.

The United Nations welcomed Monday’s announcement as a step in the right direction. “This can only be the beginning of the long road towards reconstruction and a functioning economy in the Gaza Strip,” said U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry. (CNN)

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also welcomed the move, which he said “shows that it is possible to lift the pressure on ordinary Gazans without compromising the security of ordinary Israelis.” (CNN) Hague’s statement called for continued progress by all parties to improve the situation on the ground.

Other groups were critical. Gisha, an Israel-based non-governmental organization, said the restrictions on Gaza remain too great. Sari Bashi, a spokesperson of the organization, said that raw materials vital for local factory owners were still not being allowed in on Monday.  “The restrictions that Israel applies on construction materials into Gaza prevent the private sector from rebuilding and create tremendous burdens on international humanitarian projects,” the organization said in a statement. (CNN)

An official with the Palestinian coordination committee in charge of the crossings, Raed Fattouh, told CNN that the Palestinian Authority received no formal notification from the Israeli government about the changes. “Only through media outlets it has been said that the closure on Gaza have been eased, but this is not enough,” Fattouh said, calling for Israel to allow more items to enter Gaza. (CNN)

Other Palestinian officials say little has been achieved so far, and they have tried to dispel any inflated notions of progress. “What I see is all public relations,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Monday by telephone. (New York Times) Mr. Erekat added that Mr. Netanyahu held the key to beginning direct talks, which would involve an Israeli commitment to resume negotiations from the point at which they ended under the previous Israeli government, in December 2008, and freeze all of Israeli settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem. The Netanyahu government rejects those demands.

Plans for the Recent Future

The change is among six steps the Israeli government will begin implementing as soon as possible, including expanding operations at the existing crossings and streamlining the permitting process of international aid groups the government recognizes. The naval blockade of Gaza remains in place, and military officials will continue to inspect goods on Gaza-bound ships. The foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain said Monday that they will visit Gaza this month to verify the situation on the ground there and see the checkpoints that Israel says it has opened to allow humanitarian aid to pass into Gaza.

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