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Gaza: Time to end, not 'ease' the siege

The visit by Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, to Gaza is the first serious attempt by an Arab official to break the Israeli-imposed siege on the tiny Strip.

It took a war, the lives of 1,400 Palestinians, and nine Turks, killed during a lethal Israeli interception of an aid flotilla, for Arab states to finally move against the blockade.

There is no doubt that the visit will send an important message to the international community that the siege can no longer be tolerated.

Endorsing collective punishment

Popular fury in the Arab world and beyond, triggered by the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, has spurred American and European leaders to call for an easing of the Gazan population's continued suffering.

But, instead of calling for an immediate end to the siege, most statements and proposals have been aimed at "easing" or finding an "alternative" to it. And such prescriptions to make the siege more tolerable will only alleviate the pressure on Israel rather than on the beleaguered Gazans.

Finding an "alternative" to the siege is paramount to endorsing the Israeli policy of collective punishment and guaranteeing its own security while maintaining a free hand in arresting and killing Palestinians whenever it sees fit.

The Israeli argument that the siege is necessary to undermine the Hamas movement, which has been in control of the Strip for three years this week, has been proven invalid.

Israel knows that it can secure an end to rocket attacks from Gaza through a mediated truce, such as the one brokered by Egypt in 2008. When Israel broke that truce - leading to a response from Hamas - it was as though it wanted an excuse to unleash its superior military arsenal on the Strip.

Israel's very insistence that it has the right to control the Gaza Strip and to use military power against Palestinians must not be accepted or even accommodated by the international community.

Even before Hamas won the 2006 elections and after Israel unilateral "withdrew" from Gaza, Israel was sending clear messages that it remained in control of the Strip - its land crossings, port and even skies.

Palestinian divisions

It maintains the same attitude in the West Bank.

Negotiations and a halt to armed operations against Israel have not stopped the latter from conducting raids, rounding up Palestinians, killing those who are determined to remain "wanted", demolishing homes, confiscating land, displacing residents and building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Under international law the siege on Gaza and all Israeli acts in the West Bank are considered illegal.

As an occupying power international conventions forbid Israel from imposing collective punishment on those under its control and from altering the demographic status of the territories under occupation.

Thus, if there is to be a serious Arab or international undertaking to end the crisis in Gaza it should be a real effort to end the occupation and not simply to help Israel manage it.

It is true that Palestinian divisions complicate efforts to find a solution, but an Arab rejection of any accommodation of or participation in the siege is crucial for a credible initiative by the Arab League to bring about Palestinian reconciliation.

Egypt - as the Arab party enforcing the Israeli siege by virtue of its border with Gaza - has argued that it cannot keep the Rafah crossing open until there is a return to a 2005 agreement that stipulated that the crossing be operated on the Gazan side by the Palestinian Authority (PA). The presence of European Union observers was also deemed necessary "to placate Israeli fears". 

But this arrangement was in reality an accommodation of continued Israeli control of Gaza, after "disengagement" transformed Israel's direct and visible control of the Strip into something indirect and invisible.

In other words Israel remains in control and therein lays the fundamental problem.

Political will

The rift between Hamas and Fatah over who should control the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing has distorted and eclipsed the real issue - the fact that Israel remains in control of all of Gaza's land and sea entries.

This power struggle is part of a broader battle for legitimacy. Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in the 2006 election, while Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, won the 2005 presidential elections.

The terms of both the PLC and the presidency have expired and new elections are overdue. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in its capacity as the decision-making body above the PA, has extended the terms of both the president and the council.

Ironically, Hamas has effectively accepted the decision to prolong the term of the council even though it rejects PLO sponsorship.

But the issue is political, not legal.

Moussa's visit to Gaza, as the end of his term draws near, is an opportunity to genuinely break the Israeli siege and to bring Palestinians together. But Moussa cannot act alone as most Arab governments continue to partake in fuelling the Palestinian fraternal feud.

But, ultimately it is the Palestinian leadership who must now show the political will to unite.

Days before the Israeli assault on the aid flotilla Abbas was reportedly planning to visit Gaza. It is time he does.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

Source: URUKNet, 13 June 2010

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