Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Block Aid?

Strident demands to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza have been met with forceful arguments that lifting the blockade will endanger Israeli security. Both sides appear to assume that the end of Israel’s naval blockade will open the seaways and permit the free passage of goods to Gaza. While one side believes that this will bring unimpeded humanitarian relief to the residents of Gaza, the other believes that it will lead to the unhindered passage of advanced weaponry to the Hamas. The truth of the assumptions and assertions of both sides appears to be obvious. But upon examination, the assumptions and assertions turn out to be entirely false.

What would happen if the blockade were to be lifted?

The question of importing goods to Gaza was addressed in Annex I of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement between Israel and the PLO, signed in Washington in September 1995. According to Article XIV (4) of that Agreement:

Pending construction of a port, arrangements for entry and exit of vessels passengers and goods by sea, as well as licenses for vessels and crews sailing on international voyages in transit to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, shall be through Israeli ports in accordance with the relevant rules and regulations applicable in Israel and in accordance with the provisions of Annex V.

In other words, in accordance with the Interim Agreement, vessels, passengers and goods cannot enter Gaza directly. Vessels bound for Gaza must anchor at an Israeli port. Goods cannot be imported directly into Gaza, and people cannot sail directly to the Gaza coast. All must enter Gaza through the Israeli land crossings.

In 2005, following Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Israel declared its willingness to consider the establishment of a Gaza seaport, in accordance with arrangements to be agreed upon. In November 2005, the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached an Agreement on Movement and Access from and to Gaza. The agreement included provisions for the commencement of construction of the Gaza port. The agreement was conditioned upon the preparatory work of a U.S. led tripartite committee to develop security and other relevant arrangements for the port prior to its opening.

In January 2006, elections were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas won a majority in those elections. Upon coming to power, Hamas rejected the agreements made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. This led to the imposition of economic sanctions by Israel and the Quartet (United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations), and of course, put an end to the envisaged opening of a Gaza port. The lifting of those sanctions was conditioned upon the renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of the previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Following the 2007 “Battle of Gaza”, in which the Hamas violently took control of Gaza, the sanctions on the Palestinian Authority were eased, while a blockade was imposed upon Gaza.

So, what would happen if the blockade were lifted? Nothing. At least, nothing would change in regard to the passage of vessels, people and goods to Gaza by sea. Such passage would still be prohibited, as it was prior to the blockade. The Hamas rejection of the agreements that would allow for a change in regard to movement of goods to and from Gaza would remain. Israel and the Quartet would still not recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas government, as declared by the Quartet as recently as September 2009 in its call for “the re-unification of Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate Palestinian Authority”. In the current situation, with or without a declared blockade, the sea lanes to Gaza are closed. Vessels, persons and goods bound for Gaza must pass through Israeli ports and land crossings.

Blockade or no blockade, the territorial waters off the Gaza coast will still be patrolled and controlled by the Israeli Navy, as provided in Annex I of the Interim Agreement. Foreign vessels will still be prohibited from approaching closer than twelve nautical miles from the coast, as provided by the Agreement. The Israeli Navy will continue to exercise its authority, under the Agreement, to sail unimpeded in the waters off Gaza, and to “take any measures necessary against vessels suspected of being used for terrorist activities or for smuggling arms, ammunition, drugs, goods, or for any other illegal activity.” In other words, any foreign vessel approaching the Gaza coast performs an “illegal activity” regardless of whether it is carrying missiles, peace activists or humanitarian aid, and the Israeli Navy has the legal authority to stop it even in the absence of the blockade. That the Hamas – having usurped the legitimate power of the Palestinian Authority – may object does not change matters.

Ultimately, the legality of the blockade is not in question, nor is the lawfulness of its purpose. Arguing about the name or specific framework for imposing a maritime cordon on Gaza would seem rather a bootless exercise in practical terms. While the issue of what should or should not be permitted to cross the Israeli and Egyptian land crossings into Gaza is one that should be open to debate and reappraisal, calls for an end to the blockade are duplicitous at best.

Avinoam Sharon