Taking Gaza seriously
Blockading Gaza has caused nothing but distress. Limiting imports of fruit, vegetables and cement will not succor Gilad Shalit, and the Hamas regime remains strong.
We will soon mark five years since Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, but Gaza refuses to disengage from Israel. Border incidents continue, Gilad Shalit is still in captivity, and the 1.5 million Palestinians who live beyond the border fence remain under blockade.
Neither Hamas nor Israel is interested in escalating the military conflict, which remains limited to sporadic rocket fire met by air force strikes. The other two issues, Shalit and the blockade, are being dealt with on the level of propaganda and public relations.
Negotiations over a prisoner exchange for Shalit remain stalled. Instead of restarting them with an eye toward reaching a compromise that would bring the abducted soldier home, the Netanyahu government is merely seeking to burnish its image while keeping public pressure to return him in check.
On Sunday, the cabinet decided to support a bill that would toughen prison conditions for Hamas prisoners incarcerated in Israel. The bill addresses the anger felt by many Israelis over the fact that Shalit is held in isolation and kept from receiving visitors, while Hamas inmates can watch television and pursue university studies.
Yet the bill is little more than a distraction from the main issue. It is very doubtful that Hamas - which has made no concessions on Shalit despite the closure, the air strikes and Israel's offensive in Gaza last year - will give up now just so that its people can watch comedy shows and Al Jazeera. A Haaretz report found that most of the bill's provisions are immaterial in any case: Prisoners from Gaza have been prevented from receiving family visits for the last three years, and the new law would not change their condition one bit.
The government is handling the blockade the same way: using it as a means of exerting pressure on the Hamas regime and presenting it to the Israeli public as a reasonable response to Shalit's ongoing captivity. But the closure has resulted in humanitarian distress for much of the population and must be ended. Limiting the import of fruits, vegetables and cement to Gaza does not provide succor to Shalit, and the Hamas regime remains strong.
Yet Jerusalem continues to view the siege simply as a public-relations problem, and is currently readying to intercept the aid fleet of pro-Palestinian activists that is now on its way to protest the closure. Instead of allowing Gazans to rebuild, Israel is setting up a televised confrontation between the navy and unarmed civilians.
Shalit deserves serious negotiations that lead to his release. Residents of Gaza deserve to have their plight eased. Gaza will not disappear, despite the disengagement and the closure. And it warrants more serious treatment from Israel's government.