The time has come to free the Gaza Strip, to lift the closure against it and to maintain a "normal" relationship both with its Hamas leadership and its population. The time has come to allow European nations and the United States to make direct investments in the Strip and allow the Gaza economy to develop, like its counterpart on the West Bank. The time has come to stop bluffing and pretending that the Gaza blockade punishes Hamas, impedes missile fire and serves Israel's security needs. Israel's fantasy about "destroying the terror infrastructure" - that is, destroying Hamas' leadership - has shattered time after time, and it is time to end this illusion.
The effort to promote prosperity in the West Bank and poverty in the Gaza Strip as a way of proving that cooperation with Israel reaps dividends, whereas hostility to Israel does the opposite, has never ignited the longed-for chain reaction. Gaza citizens have not staged mass demonstrations against the Hamas government, and the majority of West Bank residents do not really experience political or economic dividends. The truth is that the economic closure of Gaza is rather porous, and not only due to the smuggling through tunnels. Hundreds of trucks pass between Israel and Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing point, and a number of merchants from Gaza are allowed to bring their wares to Jordan and Israel. Israel faces stiff international pressure about the siege, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 Turkish flotilla affair.
The link that Israel claims to exist between the economic closure and security has no foundation. Hamas has a huge inventory of rockets and missiles, but rival organizations in Gaza are mainly responsible for missile and rocket attacks on Israel. The terror attack in the Sinai peninsula, in which 17 Egyptian soldiers and officers were killed, forced Hamas to claim vociferously that it was not involved in the affair.
In a paradoxical way, Hamas' absolute dependence on a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt forced it to publicly express solidarity with Egypt's national interest, renounce the attack as a crime, and support the Egyptian army operation against terror organizations in Sinai. Hamas even when so far as to pledge publicly its intention to assist Egypt in its war against terror in the Sinai peninsula. Last week, a Hamas "military" contingent visited Egypt; among others, Ahmed Jabri, head of Hamas' military wing, traveled to Egypt to coordinate anti-terror activities in the Sinai area. The character of such cooperation remains unclear; it is hard to fathom what Hamas can do against radical organizations that oppose Egypt's government.
In any event, Hamas' consent to cooperate with Cairo in this sphere puts it on a collision course - it aggravates tensions on the Gaza Strip between Hamas and organizations that are assisted by radical groups in the Sinai region. The Egyptians aren't naive; they know that cooperation with Hamas will clinch victory in their anti-terror campaign. Yet, unlike Israel, Egypt understands that the only way to gain security cooperation is to grant Hamas status as a partner.
Embroiled in an intensive effort to recruit partners for an international struggle against Iran, Israel should be happy that the Hamas leadership rejected Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's proposal to convene in Tehran a Palestinian summit including Fatah and Hamas. Hamas spokesmen stressed repeatedly in public that Egypt, not Iran, can promote unity among Palestinian groups. Incidentally, it bears mention that Mahmoud Abbas, who has long accused Hamas of being enslaved to Iran, took part in the conference of unaligned states held in Teheran.
Israel does not need to recognize Hamas in order to cooperate with it. But in view of the fragile state of relations between Israel and Egypt, the former would do well to try to strengthen these ties by making some sort of good will gesture to the Gaza Strip. Another bonus might be notched by lifting the siege: Relations between Turkey and Israel might at long last straighten out should Israel invite Turkey to serve as a watchdog after the blockade were ended, and also offer Turkey a belated apology for the killings on the flotilla.
Political wisdom, humanitarian compassion and a cool calculation of costs and benefits dictate the freeing of Gaza. But it seems these paths of enlightenment are still under closure by order of the Israeli government.
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