PM Favors Letting More Goods Into Gaza, but Won't End Naval Blockade

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that he favors easing the land blockade on Gaza to allow more civilian products in, but will not agree to ending the naval blockade.

Today, the foreign ministers of the European Union's 27 members states will meet in Luxembourg to discuss ways to end the blockade. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa visited the Gaza Strip yesterday and urged that the blockade be lifted.

In refusing to end the naval blockade, Netanyahu is essentially refusing a proposal drafted by the French, Spanish and Italian foreign ministers, under which Gaza-bound ships would be checked for weapons in Cyprus by EU inspectors.

However, Netanyahu is leaning toward accepting Tony Blair's proposal for easing the blockade, under which "the situation would change from a list of what is allowed into Gaza to a list of what is banned," Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud party yesterday. Blair serves as special envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the Quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Netanyahu also said the cabinet would meet Wednesday to discuss easing the blockade.

He also gave Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz permission to draft an alternative proposal for a complete Israeli disengagement from Gaza, under which Israel's land crossings to the Strip would be closed entirely, leaving Gaza dependent on imports from Egypt. Cairo vehemently opposes this idea.

Netanyahu told the ministers that "alongside easing the blockade, Israel will continue to prevent ships from reaching Gaza." He also said that letting "ships reach Gaza directly is problematic not only for us, but also for others. It would change the regional balance of power."

By "others," he was apparently referring to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Haaretz reported yesterday that both have told Washington they oppose ending the naval blockade, on the grounds that this would strengthen Hamas. According to the Haaretz report, PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivered the message during his White House meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama last week.

Yesterday, however, Abbas' office vehemently denied the Haaretz report.

"At all his meetings with world leaders, the president demands that the siege of Gaza be lifted, and that the world use the incident of [Israel's raid on] the Gaza-bound flotilla to press Israel to end the siege," said Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh.

At today's meeting of EU foreign ministers, France, Britain, Spain and Italy are expected to push to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt under the terms of a 2005 agreement, under which EU inspectors at the crossing were responsible for preventing weapons smuggling. They also plan to call for upgrading the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel, as well as for letting ships sail directly to Gaza after undergoing European inspection in Cyprus.

Blair, who discussed easing the blockade with Netanyahu on Friday, told the BBC yesterday that he hoped to see "significant movement on this" within "the next few days," since "otherwise, I think the pressure will build up."

"As Benjamin Netanyahu has quite rightly said today, there is a way to distinguish between the security aspect and the daily life aspect," the former British prime minister said. "And if we keep that distinction in our mind, then I think we will get the right answer and we can start that quickly."

Blair added that both the EU and the PA could play a role in helping Israel police the flow of goods into Gaza. "There are all sorts of different ways that you can help police this material, the main thing is to make whatever policing system you have effective," he said.

Moussa, meanwhile, used his first visit to Gaza to call for ending the blockade. "Every one of us here opposes the blockade, and the Arab League's position is clear," he said upon his arrival.

Moussa later met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who termed the visit "an important step toward breaking the siege of Gaza."