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ISRAEL, GAZA: Israel approves wider export from Gaza

December 8, 2010 | 10:45 am

Gaza will now have access to international markets, after Israel's security cabinet decided Wednesday to allow international export from the strip. Export previously was restricted to flowers and strawberries sent to Europe under a Dutch-sponsored program, but officials will now allow other produce, furniture and clothing through Israel's Ashdod seaport and the Allenby crossing to Jordan -- though not to Israel.

International export from Gaza may pass through Israel's Ashdod seaport and the Allenby crossing to Jordan after security inspections, but West Bank-bound goods will still be limited and require coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Haaretz reports that Palestinian Authority customs officials will supervise matters at the Kerem Shalom crossing, marking a first return for Palestinian Authority officials to Gaza since being driven out by Hamas' forceful takeover of the Gaza strip in 2007.

The security cabinet's decision stated the move would assist the Gaza economy and help ease the burden of the population "under the repressive Hamas terrorist regime." Parallel to efforts to improve those conditions, Israel continues to urge the international community to continue the blockade on the Hamas regime and prevent the continued armament of Hamas that contravenes international law and harms the Gazan population's interests, the summary said.

Earlier, Israeli sources called the decision a natural extension of the decision to lift restrictions on nearly all Gaza-bound goods in June. At the time, Israel announced a significant easing of incoming supplies, partially ending a three-year clampdown  decried by the international community. Figures obscured in the past are now more easily available, in the form of a weekly report from COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which said Wednesday the decision was part of overall easings that have produced a 16% growth in the economy in the Gaza Strip in the first half of 2010. But international circles continue to charge that Israel hasn't sufficiently loosened its control of Gaza to meet humanitarian and reconstruction needs, and recent aid reports say there has been little improvement.

Gisha, an organization advocating Gaza access, welcomes the decision and hope it heralds change, but it has concerns about continued restrictions -- and some questions. Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are part of one customs and tax unit Trade should be considered marketing, not export, they say, questioning the logic of restricting goods already passing through on their way out and not approving them for direct sale in the West Bank, or Israel. Gisha is also concerned about the actual capacity of the crossings, with only one of four crossings open before 2007 now active, that of Kerem Shalom. Israel is allowed to restrict incoming or outgoing goods based on security needs, says Gisha director Sari Bashi, but it is continuing "what Israel calls pressure and the International Red Cross calls collective punishment."

The June decision itself was forced by circumstances, closely following the ill-fated takeover of the Mavi Marmara, a ship in the flotilla set to challenge Israel's Gaza policy and break the naval blockade. The fatal events drew fierce international criticism of Israel's policies and forced a prompt revision; this came inside a week. Also quick to follow was internal criticism that a more timely review of the overall benefit of Israel's Gaza policy would have spared it grave diplomatic, even strategic damage.

Despite the lessons supposedly learned after the flotilla, Bashi says, "Israel still lacks a coherent policy regarding Gaza." Meanwhile, rockets keep flying and the army keeps retaliating.

The flotilla continues to dog Israel. The nosedive of ties with Turkey began with Israel's military offensive in Gaza but the bottom really dropped out after the incident. Turkey is adamant that Israel must issue both apology and provide compensation for the fatalities and damage to the Turkish ship. Israeli resistance was softened by Turkey's recent assistance in the recent deadly forest fires.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believes apologizing is a capitulation to terror and that if anyone should be apologizing, it's Turkey. Minister Silvan Shalom too says relations with them are important but that an apology should be out of the question.

The Turkel Commission investigating the flotilla events (as well as the broader scope of Israel's policies on Gaza and the naval blockade) heard testimony all summer and fall and is said to be done and working on its report. Here too, Israel had rejected international demands for an investigation committee, saying internal inquiries were sufficient. Then it formed the commission with international observers.

Some might see a pattern in this, the day after the U.S. announcement that it is abandoning the settlement freeze as an avenue for jumpstarting the stalled peace talks and each side accuses the other for wasting a precious year and a half. Somewhere between holding out and cutting losses, a stitch in time saves face.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem