Israel's decision to adjust its punitive blockade of Gaza is mainly intended to deflect international pressure that has grown since May 31st, when Israel commandeered the aid flotilla in international waters and killed nine activists. The Israeli announcement, incidentally, came in English and was not repeated in Hebrew according to Haaretz.
The blockade has been severely criticized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC is an organization that goes out of its way to maintain a neutral stance, which it feels allows it to function effectively in conflict areas. When it does take a position based in international law, it does so in a measured way. Thus, the ICRC's finding that Israel vis-a-vis Gaza is not meeting its responsibilities under international humanitarian law, and is practicing "collective punishment" is important. Furthermore, the ICRC has reiterated its position that the blockade is not merely a humanitarian issue. Israel's "closure" of Gaza denies the people living there the opportunity to sustain normal economic opportunity and development.
Of course, the blockade of Gaza was progressively tightened following the electoral victory of Hamas in 2006 with significant encouragement and support from the U.S. government. The point was precisely to undermine the credibility of Hamas and sow discontent among Gazans. After the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006, and especially after Hamas thwarted Fatah's (U.S. supported) effort to topple it from power in 2007, Israel was even more invested with keeping the blockade in place.
Israel is now betting that by adjusting the arbitrary terms of reference for the shipment of food and consumer goods into Gaza, and by permitting limited construction to occur, it will be able to keep the blockade in place. Perhaps so.
My own reaction to Israel's decision is quoted in part in the Washington Post. My full comment follows:
Israel's government is attempting to retain the blockade of Gaza by allowing international NGOs to import some raw materials while denying Gazans the materials they need to reconstruct their simple homes, to move out of tents and hovels into barely adequate homes. If Israel was serious about improving the living conditions of Gazans, it would stop preventing the exports of agricultural goods and allow the strip's simple manufacturing sector to resume making and selling everyday essentials. This latest decision by Israel is an arrogant in-your-face to the US and other concerned members of the international community. Watch the US government spokespersons for their reaction. If they commend Israel, then you may discount Obama's commitment to Middle East peace making heavily.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, described the newly announced adjustments to the blockade as only "a step in the right direction." Obama has described the Gaza humanitarian situation as "unsustainable." Gibbs repeated that yesterday. Will the U.S., in concert with the EU, keep up the pressure to end the collective punishment of Gaza and allow the Gazans to attempt to create a viable economy, or will the pressure ebb? It is obviously too soon to tell, but one lesson of recent weeks is that absent diplomatic pressure, the status quo will continue.
A skillful diplomatic effort led the U.S. would end the punitive blockade, and lend renewed momentum to the flagging efforts of George Mitchell. It is hard to imagine such an effort succeeding without the release of Gilad Shalit, a move toward reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and an effective long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. That is a tall order, but Obama's aides insist he is deeply committed to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.