It seems that the attempts at breaking the siege on GS, especially in the light of the attack on Freedom Flotilla, have started to embarrass the USA in addition to being a real pressure factor on Israel. This means that the future of the siege would be apparently linked to the pace of aid flotillas attempting at breaking the siege, the nature of the elite solidarity activists and their national identities.
Based on this background, it is possible to say that the situation in GS is heading to either one of three scenarios:
1- lifting the siege on the basis of the the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) of 2005.
2- easing the siege according to the Israeli standards. The chances for this scenario are high, given the supportive stance of the US which calls for considering Israel as the only party entitled to decide on the proper way for protecting its security.
3- opening sea lane on the basis of the European proposal to send ships to monitor vessels coming to the GS.
The increase in the pace of ships that aim at breaking the siege is the main factor which renders the sea lane a fait accompli.
1. Lifting the Siege
2. Easing the siege
3. Opening Sea Lane
Given the size of the losses incurred on the Gazans, dozens of road convoys moved simultaneously towards the Strip with in-kind medical and humanitarian aid. Organizers have not saved an effort to deliver their cargo to the besieged Gazans where some of them succeeded to get a permit to pass through the Rafah crossing while others failed to reach their destination. On the other hand, some convoys were kept waiting on the sidewalks of the crossing in the hotness of the Sinai desert under the pretext of finishing transactions and administrative procedures till the food in the cargoes rotted and medicine was spoiled.
On another level, around ten ships and boats were sent to Gaza during three years from Europe, USA and the Arab countries. The Israeli forces prevented five of these ships from reaching their destination and even obstructed these attempts by force and by detaining the passengers for days before releasing them.
On the other hand, Israel allowed the other five ships to reach the Gazan shores while the solidarity activists could personally distribute the in-kind aid to the Gazans. It is worth of mention that the ships which Israel has allowed to reach Gaza had on board international activists, parliamentarians, former diplomats and prominent personalities. Apparently, Israel’s stance reflected its commitment to avoid stirring Western public opinion and embarrassing the governments of the countries from where these activists come.
In late May 2010, Freedom Flotilla headed towards GS comprising six ships carrying around 630 solidarity activists with about 10 thousand tons of relief supplies and humanitarian assistance.
The Israeli authorities threatened Freedom Flotilla and vowed to block its access to the GS by military force. Undeterred by the Israeli threats, the solidarity activists insisted on heading towards their destination; however, the Israeli forces overtook the ships and intercepted them in international waters; they further abseiled onto the deck and stormed Mavi Marmara, the flotilla’s largest passenger ship, using live ammunition, thus killing nine Turkish activists in cold blood.
The massacre stirred international reaction, both on the official and public levels, denouncing the Israeli crime against civilians and calling on an independent international investigation that ends impunity for Israel’s crimes. On the other hand, there was a clear divergence in the stances of the Quartet where most of its members demanded ending the siege, whereas the Americans and the Israelis found themselves totally isolated on the international level. However, the global momentum was soon absorbed and weakened.
The stand of Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in dealing with the GS siege is based on two important points:
1. Seeking to play an effective, regional role through which it can resolve conflicts in the region, in order to maintain the security of neighboring countries including the security of Turkey itself.
2. Strong popular sympathy with the Gazans based on religious background common to the Palestinians and the Turkish people alike. This also affects the official position especially that AKP is a party which is rooted in Islam and pays explicit attention to the pulse of the street on the basis of elections.
The above explains the size of the Turkish concern about Freedom Flotilla as an attempt to break the siege; it also explains the level of popular and official rage at the Israeli crime against the Turkish solidarity activists. In this context, PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan pursued an escalatory tone using harsh expressions where he described the Israeli practices as “barbaric.”
Despite this atmosphere, the Turkish foreign policy pursued the following steps:
1. Calling on lifting the GS siege besides the determination to move forward in breaking the blockade and terminating it.
2. Stressing the need that Israel comply with the Turkish conditions particularly regarding apology, compensation and the agreement to establish an international investigation committee.
3. Maintaining communication with the forces which Washington has labeled as the axis of evil namely Iran, Syria, Hezbullah and Hamas.
4. Insisting on punishing Israel in case it did not respond to the Turkish conditions through decreasing diplomatic representation, the abolition of some conventions relating to military training, preventing Israeli military aircraft from using Turkish airspace, in addition to the deterioration in security cooperation and economic transactions.
However, the Turkish actions were way less than anticipations and incongruous with the atmosphere of anger and the escalatory tone which accompanied it. Apparently, the Turks felt that they had a limited margin in moving against Israel and they did not want to upset the Americans and the West at this stage.
The way the Israeli government dealt with Mavi Marmara and the developments which followed, was based on subsequent rejection of a Turkish role in the region and a determination to cling to the siege, albeit in a new form, till the achievement of its political goals. This might have been the vision which urged the Netanyahu government to pursue the following steps:
1. Committing the Marmara massacre and deliberately insulting the Turks through the demeaning actions and expressions used by the Israeli soldiers, such as treading on the Turkish activists in particular.
2. Release of all detainees: the Turks, Arabs and Muslims, and Westerners as a step to contain the aftermath of the massacre and its repercussions.
3. Unloading the ships of Freedom Flotilla in the port of Ashdod to imply Israel’s determination to not allow the access of any supplies directly into Gaza but rather through another channel.
4. Noncompliance with the Turkish demands such as apology, returning the vessels directly, paying compensation and the establishment of an international investigation committee. It seemed like the Netanyahu government wanted to maintain a certain level of “tension” with Erdogan’s government, as a step to stop the Turkish interference in the Palestinian cause.
5. Seeking to absorb the global state of anger prompted by the siege and the announcement of “easing” the siege by increasing the number of allowable items including ketchup, mayonnaise and shoelaces!! Netanyahu explained this step by saying that easing the siege is the best way to guarantee its continuity.
6. Israel, backed by the US, sought to prevent the take off of any aid ships aiming at breaking the siege especially from the Greek and Cypriot ports. These countries expressed willingness to cooperate as they do not seek to aggravate the relations with Israel or the US.
In the context of his efforts to contribute to defusing tension, the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, declared his decision to indefinitely open the Rafah crossing to relief and humanitarian aid. Yet, the Egyptian government did not fully meet this declaration, as it prevented many convoys from reaching the GS although these convoys were organized based on Mubarak’s declaration.
A number of Egyptian officials explained their country’s considerations regarding the permanent opening of Rafah crossing. They stressed the need for the presence of Palestinian presidency’s security forces and the European observers as an expression of Cairo’s determination to adhere to the Philadelphi Accord which restricts the Rafah crossing to the passage of individuals rather than goods.
Initially, and as an attempt to absorb popular indignation, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the need to change the status quo in the GS, while the presidential envoy George Mitchell called on easing the siege and turning life in GS back to normal. However, a few days after the massacre, in contrast to what the Obama administration has declared, the American stance started to change in accordance with the Israeli orientations, where President Obama himself said that Israel had the right to protect its security and choose the proper way to guarantee it.
Later, the Obama administration called on the Palestinian presidency and on Israel to go back to the AMA of 2005 where this call allows America to achieve many goals, including:
1. Venting anger, calming the media blitz and delivering a misleading message to the public opinion to the effect that life in the GS was going back to its “former” status through the organization of movement at the crossings between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
2. Preventing Hamas and the Gaza-based government from investing the achievements of Freedom Flotilla on the media, public and political level.
3. Paving the way for Egypt, the Palestinian presidency, Israel and the European Union to play a role commensurate with the developments of the current scene.
At the beginning of the crisis, many European countries condemned the massacre and demanded lifting the siege and allowing the return to normal life in the GS. The European stance was different from the former European policy. However, this positive development did not last long but changed another time when decision–making capitals in the EU such as France, Germany, England and Spain which holds the EU presidency, adopted the orientations of the Obama administration. These countries showed willingness to return observers to the Rafah crossing after the return of security forces loyal to Salam Fayyad government. Then, they added a practical proposal which entailed sending warships that would monitor vessels coming to the GS and search them to prevent the “arrival of any military aid to Hamas” as a preemptive step that would help Israel avoid falling in trouble again.
Moscow was not far from the Freedom Flotilla and Mavi Marmara incidents as it announced its condemnation for the massacre, stressing the need to end the siege imposed on the Gazans. It further urged the need to move forward on the Palestinian track and hold inter-Palestinian reconciliation. The Russian stance was characterized by high tone rejecting what was happening; nonetheless, just when the US disclosed its vision for ending the crisis, Russia joined the Quartet in its call for enhancement of the AMA of 2005 besides the need for European observers and security forces affiliated with Fayyad government.
The UN Secretary–General Ban Ki Moon highly condemned the massacre and emphasized the need to lift the siege and return to normal life in the GS. However, the UN stand did not crystallize in practical action and it soon adapted to the status imposed by the Israelis. Indeed, the UN officials cited the need to open the crossings according to the conventions signed in this regard, with the participation of the European observers and the security forces affiliated with the Ramallah-based government.
The Palestinian presidency condemned the massacre and announced its rejection for the Netanyahu government’s ongoing siege on “our people in the GS.” However, the Palestinian Authority (PA) raised the issue of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas considering it as the “doorway” to lifting the siege or easing it. This practically means that, according to the stance of the PA, lifting the siege is not possible without inter-Palestinian reconciliation under the terms of the Quartet, signing the Egyptian paper or Hamas abandoning public life and leaving the government in case it insisted on its political stances!
Hamas realizes that the economic siege on the GS was based on political background, where the Quartet wanted to break the will of the Palestinian people and overthrow Isma‘il Haniyyah’s government. Hamas is also aware that the Obama administration, in fact, exposes itself to embarrassment when it aligns itself with the Israeli stance and ignores the continuing siege, in addition to not supporting the establishment of the Palestinian state.
Thus, it seems that Hamas has pursued two complementary approaches in its refusal for the siege or compliance with the conditions of lifting it:
1. Holding on to its political stances and clinging to resistance as an option; this has helped Hamas withstand the military campaigns on GS, especially the 2008/2009 attack.
2. Encouraging the attempts to break the siege and benefiting from them on the political, media and tactic levels. This approach started to yield its fruits through embarrassing Obama, besides demonizing Israel and isolating it on the international level through accusing it of racism and genocide.
In this context, Haniyyah’s government insisted on the need for the presence of security forces affiliated with it at Rafah and Karam Abu Salem crossings, in addition to the forces affiliated with Fayyad government. Further, Hamas did not agree to return to the AMA of 2005 unless in the presence of a national unity government as security forces affiliated with the Palestinian presidency used to organize the crossings.
1. Lifting the Siege
Lifting the siege is one of the possibilities, especially in the presence of many agreements signed by the Israelis on one hand and Egypt and the Palestinian presidency on the other hand. The chances for this scenario are enhanced by the differences between the various parties of the Quartet and the increased international demands calling for lifting the siege. In addition, the crossings have been opened and run, although not in a smooth and natural way, during the presence of Hamas in the 10th and 11th governments. The odds for this scenario might further increase in case campaigns aiming at breaking the siege proceeded and political and media pressure continued to target Israel. However, this scenario is weakened by the continued support of major countries for the Israeli demands besides the negative stand towards Hamas and its government in the GS, where these countries tend to ease the siege rather than end it.
2. Easing the siege
Easing the siege is considered one of the demands agreed upon by the different parties. Yet differences rise due to the criteria according to which easing the siege would proceed. For example, the countries and forces involved in imposing the siege require that this mitigation not allow Hamas to claim the victory of steadfastness and resistance option. While the international community tends to identify prohibited material which could be a few dozens out of seven thousand kinds, the Israeli side tends to identify the allowed items, thus preventing the access of thousands of materials into the GS. Apparently, the Israeli side is so far capable of imposing its vision. The chances for this scenario are enhanced by the common American-European stance which gave Israel the right to determine the way to protect its security. Still, the chances for this scenario could fall in case sending aid ships to the GS continued successively at a more dynamic pace.
3. Opening Sea Lane
This scenario is based on the idea of allowing goods through sea paralleled with a European observation and inspection mechanism. It is possible to consider the declaration by many EU countries of their willingness to send warships to be stationed off the GS coast as a practical proposal meant to facilitate the life of the Gazans. The odds for this scenario are enhanced by Israel’s inflexible stance towards such operations, which requires external intervention to ease the pressure on the Netanyahu government and take it out from inevitable trouble. This scenario needs constant efforts by the European campaign for breaking the siege as well as other organizations and movements seeking to break the siege, to guarantee the continuity of aid ships which would keep the Israeli stand in continuous trouble. In this case, it becomes possible to break the siege as a fait accompli where the Quartet finds itself obliged to deal with it in the light of the European proposal. Beyond that, the siege would continue according to the Israeli old-new criteria.
1. Establishing a national unity government which forms the Palestinian mechanism for opening the crossings, especially that the crossings were opened during the period of this government.
2. The presence of security forces affiliated with the Palestinian presidency beside their brothers in GS, and ruling out any justifications for closing the crossings.
3. Increasing the efforts of the European campaign for breaking the siege as well as other organizations and movements seeking to break the siege. In addition, sending aid ships on a continuous basis to keep the Israeli stand in trouble and put the Quartet in the face of a fait accompli which would help break the blockade.
4. Supporting the Turkish stand which is working to break the siege and calling for declaring the sea route between Gaza and Antalya an Islamic passage, under the auspices of the UN, where Islamic forces monitor movement there.
5. Egypt should open the Rafah crossing completely and permanently, while enhancing the economic and commercial exchange between Egypt and the GS, and expanding the role of the crossing beyond passage of individuals.
6. Reviewing the AMA and considering new arrangements that put an end to the Israeli control of the crossings.
Al-Zaytouna Centre offers sincere thanks to Mo’ein Manna’ for writing the main document, upon which this assessment was based.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 23/8/2010