Aid-boat diplomacy / Amos Harel
The cabinet's decision Sunday to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip means, for the most part, an end to the siege on Hamas' rule in the territory. And it's more than a victory on points for Hamas and the Turkish government. It's a genuine achievement for what is described as the muqawama (the resistance ) - the radical alliance of Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and recently also Turkey.
Hamas' leaders in the Gaza Strip and its politburo in Damascus will portray Israel's retreat as proof of the righteousness of their way. Israelis, they will say once more, understand only force. We can assume that the easing of the blockade will convince Hamas' leaders to continue their tough stance, also during the negotiations for the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit.
This appears to be a much more likely scenario than the group accepting the easing of the blockade as something it can show Gaza's populace, which it would follow with a compromise in the negotiations to free Shalit that have been stalled since the German mediator's last attempt in December.
The link between the blockade and the negotiations for freeing Shalit intensifies as we approach the anniversary of his abduction this Friday and his family's resumption of its campaign for his release.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented Israel's position on the negotiations to the Knesset yesterday, in a rare development. But he found it hard to respond to the claims by Shalit's father Noam that the easing of the blockade is giving away an important element in the struggle for Gilad's return. It is doubtful whether the siege was such a bargaining chip in the first place, but Netanyahu cannot make such an argument after he insisted for more than a year on sticking to the stance of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, on the benefit of keeping the blockade in place.
On the strategic level, all the bad effects of the flotilla have not been accounted for yet. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority reversed its decision to hold municipal elections, fearing that the Israeli interdiction of the flotilla would boost Hamas' popularity. On the border with the Gaza Strip, the Rafah crossing is open most of the time because Egypt did not want to look like it was collaborating with Israel. Hamas, meanwhile, believes that it has found new strategic depth in the form of Turkey; the group's behavior over the past three years had completely lost it support in Cairo.
For all these reasons, we must assume that Israel will soon face more flotillas, even if the departure of ships from Lebanon is being delayed for now as a result of pressure by the United States and European Union on Beirut.
Meanwhile, Israel has told the Palestinian Authority that it intends to expand by 30 percent the amount of goods being transferred to the Gaza Strip. Delays in getting more goods in stem not only from the indirect communications between Israel and Hamas, but also from the need of Palestinian merchants there to place orders.
In the longer term, more steps will be considered: expanding the use of the Karni crossing and the reopening of the Sufa crossing. Israel has still not responded to Quartet envoy Tony Blair's idea of posting foreign observers at the Strip's crossings.
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