How is this for a paradox? The military takeover of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May of this year did indeed entangle Israel in an international imbroglio. But in at least one respect, it seems that Israel owes a small debt of gratitude to the organizers of the flotilla, particularly the members of the Turkish Islamist organization IHH.
Were it not for the brouhaha surrounding the Mavi Marmara affair, it is doubtful whether Israel would have reversed its policy of the airtight closure it had imposed on the Gaza Strip. For almost two years, the Netanyahu government (and the Olmert government before that ) not only insisted on preventing ships from reaching Gaza, but also continued to impose strict restrictions on the goods allowed in via the border crossings. Only the bare essentials were permitted, while goods deemed luxury items were banned.
This policy was foolish and ineffectual, and it cost Israel countless condemnations abroad. Meanwhile, the influx of weapons through underground tunnels connecting Rafah with the Sinai Peninsula continued unabated. Rockets, some of which are reported to have a range that exceeds 70 kilometers, were smuggled into Gaza, even as the Israel Defense Forces remained steadfast in its battle against the entry of coriander. The army's demand that ships be searched, for fear that they might be smuggling weapons, is understandable, but it is difficult to find a plausible explanation for turning away "luxury items." The return of captive soldier Gilad Shalit, which was cited as the pretext used to explain the imposition of the closure, was not facilitated as a result of this policy.
The government held firm to its policy - that is, until the arrival of the Mavi Marmara. Afterward, it executed an astounding, lightning-quick retraction of its policy and lifted restrictions over most of the items it had previously banned. This was a humiliation, the final straw in a serious of missteps that are still being investigated by a number of committees. But it did free Israel from further entrenching itself in a policy that yielded no advantages.
The issue came to the fore last week, when Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini paid a visit to the Gaza Strip. Prior to entering the Hamas-ruled territory, Frattini was briefed at the Erez checkpoint by the coordinator for government activities in the territories, IDF Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot. Perhaps it was a forgone conclusion that the guest would not ask too many difficult questions. When Silvio Berlusconi is in power, the Italian government takes a clear pro-Israel stance (and the visiting minister surely felt at home on the day he arrived, since the front pages of the newspapers were devoted to a sex scandal ).
Dangot did not end up having to justify or apologize for Israel's actions. The figures he presented to Frattini seemed quite reasonable: 250 trucks capable of loading two containers' worth of goods are free to cross into the Gaza Strip on a daily basis via the Kerem Shalom crossing, more than double the amount that was permitted before the flotilla episode. The UN Relief and Works Agency has been given the green light to build 26 new infrastructure projects. In two instances, Israel requested that UNRWA alter its plans to build schools due to their proximity to Hamas-run installations in the Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa. Goods will begin to be exported from Gaza next year.
Since January of this year, just a short time after taking up his post, Dangot began the painstaking process of lifting some of the restrictions placed on the entry of goods into Gaza. The Mavi Marmara crisis significantly expedited the pace of change.
Of course, one could argue that this is all just a drop in the bucket. Gazans remain trapped between the Israeli rock and the hard place that is the fanatic, dictatorial Hamas regime. But Israel is no longer considered solely responsible for the hardships of Gazans and criticism against it has waned, as was evident during a September conference of donor nations willing to provide funding for the Palestinians.
In the meantime, the number of Gaza-bound flotillas has also dropped. The organizers of these missions have never bothered with the facts. Their top priority was never to provide food and medicine to Gazans, but to confront Israel. Now, however, the international community is less receptive to their claims, making it far more difficult for them to muster up new momentum for another onslaught of maritime convoys.
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