Tony Blair, the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East, hailed Tuesday the Israeli cabinet’s expected approval of a plan to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip and allow more aid into the territory as “a very important step.”
The plan, which was formulated jointly by Blair and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will likely come before the cabinet for approval on Wednesday.
It contains three main elements: formulation of a blacklist of goods and supplies that will not be allowed into Gaza, particularly items that could be put to use in manufacturing weapons; Israel’s acquiescence to the entry of building materials for UN-sponsored construction projects; and Israel’s agreement to consider stationing European Union as well as Palestinian Authority monitors at border crossings to inspect incoming goods.
In remarks to Haaretz on Tuesday, Blair stressed the importance of the cabinet’s anticipated approval of the plan.
“It will allow us to keep weapons and weapon materials out of Gaza, but on the other hand to help the Palestinian population there,” the former British prime minister said. “The policy in Gaza should be to isolate the extremists but to help the people.”
The goal, Blair added, was always to get to a situation in which there would be no need for the smuggling tunnels in order to get commercial goods into Gaza, because all these goods would get in through the border crossings.
Now, after the easing of the blockade and the change in policy, “we will have to redouble our efforts to release [kidnapped soldier] Gilad Shalit,” he said.
The Blair-Netanyahu understandings are the end result of intensive discussions between the two men that were launched after the Israel Navy’s botched raid of a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza. Nine people were killed when naval commandos encountered violent opposition from scores of passengers immediately after being rappelled onto the deck from helicopters.
Blair has met with the premier three times over the past 10 days, in addition to numerous telephone conversations, to discuss easing the civilian blockade of Gaza while meeting Israeli security concerns.
At their first meeting, the envoy handed Netanyahu a document prepared by Blair’s staff that included suggestions for easing the blockade. The prime minister told Blair that he never thought the blockade as constituted was particularly wise, as he understood that the civilian population, and not Hamas, bore the primary brunt.
“It’s important for me to have a policy that I can defend before the world,” Netanyahu told Blair.
In his talks with Blair, Netanyahu also raised the sensitive subject of Shalit. For four years, Israel has said it would ease the Gaza blockade only as part of a deal for Shalit’s release. Netanyahu thus told Blair that if he eases the blockade now, the international community must do more to obtain Shalit’s freedom.
Meanwhile, Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin warned the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday that ending the naval blockade on Gaza would be “a dangerous development for Israel.”
“This would be a gaping security breach even if security checks were conducted [on ships] en route, at international ports, before they reach Gaza,” Diskin said.
He added that Gaza-based terrorist organizations continue to stockpile arms, most of which are self-manufactured, though some are still being smuggled into the Strip.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad have 5,000 rockets in the Strip, with ranges of up to 40 kilometers,” Diskin said. “Of those rockets, 4,000 belong to Hamas.”
“Hamas also possesses several rockets that can reach central Israel,” Diskin warned.
The Shin Bet head also discussed Israel’s willingness to ease the land blockade on Gaza, saying, “there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. I don’t have any problem with easing the transfer of goods from Israel. But weapons are being smuggled in right now from Sinai.”
“Sinai is an attractive destination for Al-Qaida refugees who came from Iraq and made their way to the peninsula via Jordan,” Diskin added. “All kinds of terrorist collaborators from the Gaza Strip, as well as from Hezbollah, also go to Sinai, which is a huge landmass that is difficult to control. It’s also hard to regulate entry visas into Sinai.”
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