Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apology to Turkey, brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama, presents an opportunity for Israel to break its stalemate with Ankara and to improve its already close ties with Washington, following years of disagreements about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. This is another important step toward minimizing harmful restrictions on Palestinian citizens' movement to and from the Gaza Strip, which were imposed after Hamas took power in the territory in 2007. Israel's policy of blockade has helped Hamas entrench its power (which has made the citizens there poorer and more dependent on governmental services and assistance), and has led to Israel's increasing international isolation – and, of course, to its rift with Turkey. However, for Israel to truly benefit from this recent diplomatic achievement, it must be prepared to continue easing the blockade that fueled tensions with Ankara in the first place.
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Since the flotilla events, Israel has lifted most of its restrictions on the entry of goods into Gaza, has allowed for several exports, and has increased the number of permits it issues for travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Egypt, for its part, has opened the border with Gaza for travelers heading abroad – an act that is crucial as Israel prohibits a seaport or airport from operating in Gaza. At the same time, it should be noted that Israel continues to impose a ban on the export of goods to Israel or the West Bank, and limits travel between the two Palestinian territories to "rare humanitarian cases." The ban, for example, on Gazan students who wish to travel to West Bank universities harms mainly young women, as do restrictions on businesswomen or the export of handicrafts.
Even after Operation Pillar of Defense late last year, Israel continued to ease restrictions on movement. Following the cease-fire agreement with Hamas, farmers' access to their land was expanded and fishermen were permitted to sail up to six miles off the Gaza coast.
Netanyahu stressed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Israel has lifted many of the restrictions on goods entering Gaza, and Erdogan even claimed later that he had been promised additional gestures. Israel has not confirmed this statement, however Israeli spokespeople have touted these relief measures and said restrictions would only be tightened for the purpose of protecting the security of Israeli citizens.
That's why Israel's response to the rocket fire from Gaza in recent weeks has been so puzzling. On Sunday, as was the case two weeks ago during Obama's visit, armed Gazans fired rockets at Israeli communities, violating international prohibitions on firing at civilians. Israel responded by closing border crossings to Gaza, preventing the entry of goods, imposing new restrictions on Palestinians' movement between Gaza and the West Bank, and limiting, once again, the area off the Gaza coast where fishing is allowed.
This was the third time in a little more than a month that Israel responded to militants' rocket fire by blocking the movement of Gaza's civilian population. In 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross condemned this type of policy as illegal collective punishment, while Turkey and other international allies in the West criticized it as inhumane and ineffective.
The new restrictions on civilians' movement also raise questions about Israel's security officials who praised the more permissive approach as beneficial to Israel. Since 2010, senior officials in the Defense Ministry have declared again and again that economic activity in Gaza promotes stability and weakens both militant groups and Hamas. Just last month, a spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, said that steps taken to expand the scope of goods entering Gaza "increases revenues to the Palestinian Authority's coffers due to the collection of customs fees and other taxes" – as opposed to the goods smuggled in through tunnels, which the Hamas government taxes. In 2010, Netanyahu himself even said that punishing the civilian population in Gaza undermines Israel's "moral superiority."
Israel doesn't need to close its border crossings with Gaza to demonstrate to the Palestinians that it can exact a price for rocket fire against Israeli civilians, which is fittingly considered a war crime. No one doubts Israel's military superiority, its complete control over Gaza's airspace and territorial waters and the West Bank's border crossings. However, years of blockading Gaza have shown that imprisoning civilians there also isolates Israel diplomatically – which limits its options for diplomacy, also when it comes to the Gaza Strip.
Obama's visit and the early signs of reconciliation between Israel and Turkey suggest a different path – one that is uncertain but also full of promise, one of support from strategic allies. That support is based on Israel's turning the page in its attitude toward the Palestinians, and Israel's new government would be wise to choose this path.
Sari Bashi is the executive editor of Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.