Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
June 3, 2010 - 12:00am

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration considers Israel’s blockade of Gaza to be untenable and plans to press for another approach to ensure Israel’s security while allowing more supplies into the impoverished Palestinian area, senior American officials said Wednesday.

The officials say that Israel’s deadly attack on a flotilla trying to break the siege and the resulting international condemnation create a new opportunity to push for increased engagement with the Palestinian Authority and a less harsh policy toward Gaza.

“There is no question that we need a new approach to Gaza,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy shift is still in the early stages. He was reflecting a broadly held view in the upper reaches of the administration.

Israel would insist that any approach take into account three factors: Israel’s security; the need to prevent any benefit to Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza; and the four-year-old captivity of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit.

Since the botched raid that killed nine activists on Monday, the Israeli government has said that the blockade was necessary to protect Israel against the infiltration into Gaza of weapons and fighters sponsored by Iran.

If there were no blockade in place, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Israeli television on Wednesday evening, it would mean “an Iranian port in Gaza.” He added, “Israel will continue to maintain its right to defend itself.”

But the American officials said they believed that even Mr. Netanyahu understood that a new approach was needed.

Yet Mr. Netanyahu has resisted American pressure in the past. The Obama administration initially demanded a complete freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but had to accept a 10-month partial freeze. Pressure on Israel also carries domestic political risks for Mr. Obama, given the passion of its supporters in the United States.

Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza five years ago and built the makings of an international border. But after Hamas, which rejects Israel’s existence, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, Israel cut back on the amount of goods permitted into Gaza. When Sergeant Shalit was seized in a raid in June of that year, commerce was further reduced.

A year later, Hamas drove the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority entirely out of Gaza in four days of street battles, leading Israel to cut off all shipments in and out except basic food, humanitarian aid and urgent medical supplies.

Hamas declines to recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence or accept previous accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The diplomatic group known as the Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, has said that until Hamas meets those requirements, the Quartet will not deal with it.

But the world powers have grown increasingly disillusioned with the blockade, saying that it has created far too much suffering in Gaza and serves as a symbol not only of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians but of how the West is seen in relation to the Palestinians.

“Gaza has become the symbol in the Arab world of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and we have to change that,” the senior American official said. “We need to remove the impulse for the flotillas. The Israelis also realize this is not sustainable.”

At a meeting of the Quartet a year ago in Italy, for example, the group asserted that the current situation was not sustainable and called for the unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian aid within Gaza, as well as the reopening of crossing points.

But Obama administration officials made it clear that the deaths had given a new urgency to changing the policy.

Pressure against the blockade continued to grow on Wednesday: Turkey, which withdrew its ambassador to Israel after the raid, said full restoration of diplomatic ties was contingent on an end to the blockade.

The new British prime minister, David Cameron, also called for an end to the blockade, criticizing the raid as “completely unacceptable.”

In Israel, officials say there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza because the Defense Ministry makes sure that enough food and medicine reach the population. But international aid groups assert that real malnutrition is growing to about 10 percent and that problems with medical and sanitation supplies are rising perilously because of the Israeli and Egyptian embargoes.

In recent months, Israel has permitted increased — although still quite limited — movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza. One Israeli official said that under Mr. Netanyahu there had been a 20 percent increase in goods, including some limited building materials under third-party supervision so that Hamas would not get hold of them.

But Israel remains adamant, saying that if cement and steel were allowed to pass in any serious amount, they would end up in Hamas missiles and other weapons that would be aimed at Israel.

Discussion in Israel this week has largely focused on the details of the seizure of the ship where the deaths occurred rather than on the broader question of whether the blockade is good policy.

Amos Gilad, a senior defense official, said in an interview that in Gaza, “we only have bad solutions, worse solutions and worst solutions.” He added: “Hamas is a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction. We, on the contrary, are facilitating them to bring in all kinds of food, materials; they are even exporting strawberries and flowers.”

Aluf Benn, a senior editor and columnist for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote on Wednesday that the time had come for a new Gaza policy.

“The attempt to control Gaza from outside, via its residents’ diet and shopping lists, casts a heavy moral stain on Israel and increases its international isolation,” he wrote. “Every Israeli should be ashamed of the list of goods prepared by the Defense Ministry, which allows cinnamon and plastic buckets into Gaza, but not houseplants and coriander. It’s time to find more important things for our officers and bureaucrats to do than update lists.”

He suggested sealing the Israel-Gaza border and informing the international community that Israel was no longer responsible for Gaza in any way, forcing Gaza to turn to Egypt as its corridor to the outside world.

Egypt has consistently rejected such an idea in the past, asserting that Gaza is Israel’s responsibility because it has occupied it since 1967.

One of the primary rationales for the blockade offered by Israeli officials is the need to create a material and political gap between the West Bank, run by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, and Gaza, run by Hamas. And political surveys have shown a preference for Fatah and discontent with Hamas among Palestinians. But the latest events, the American officials say, have given Hamas a dangerous lift.


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