WASHINGTON – The United States defended Israel’s blockade of Gaza despite international demands that it be lifted, following Israel’s deadly raid on ships attempting to reach the coastal strip.
As the US reviews its Gaza policy in the wake of the bloody raid, American officials are indicating that the US is at this point looking for an incremental shift in Israel’s approach toward Gaza, rather than a sea change.
“You can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not, but the truth of the matter is, Israel has a right to know – they’re at war with Hamas – has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in,” Vice President Joe Biden told Charlie Rose in an interview Wednesday night.
“It’s legitimate for Israel to say, ‘I don’t know what’s on that ship. These guys are dropping eight-3,000 rockets on my people.’”
Biden, in discussing the humanitarian difficulties caused by the blockade, stressed America’s interest in having more goods reach the people of Gaza. That approach, backed by other US officials on Thursday, is in keeping with a narrow revision of the policy change now being put forward.
“The one thing we have to do is not forget the plight of these Palestinians there, not Hamas,” Biden continued. “They’re in bad shape. So we have put as much pressure and as much cajoling on Israel as we can to allow them to get building materials” and other goods.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley reiterated US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words earlier this week that the current situation in Gaza is “unsustainable.”
But he suggested that the status quo could be altered without a broad change to Israel’s policy, which includes a naval blockade as well as limiting the flow of goods and people into Gaza by land crossings.
Referring to an op-ed penned by Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren on the 10,000 rockets that Hamas has fired into Israel, Crowley defended Israel’s overall policy.
“Given that history and that reality, Israel has a very legitimate interest in being able to inspect and to some extent control the flow of materials into Gaza to make sure that that doesn’t include further rockets, missiles, arms that pose a real threat to Israeli citizens,” he said. “Israel feels that the blockade is the most effective way of doing that. We understand that.”
He also expressed understanding for another aim of the blockade and partial embargo: to isolate Hamas and complicate its rule of the coastal strip, which it took by force in 2007.
“We’re also conscious of the legitimate interest that Israel has and the United States shares in isolating Hamas, which is a terrorist organization that has chosen not to join the peace process,” he said. “So it is quite a legitimate policy to find ways to improve the lives of the citizens of Gaza while isolating Hamas and protecting Israel’s security.”
Israeli officials said that so far the US has not called on them to make any broad change to its Gaza policy, though it expects the issue of the policy to come up in conversations the sides will have in the coming weeks and months as part of a broader view of moving forward, given recent events.
“There’s an ongoing expectation that we relax the restrictions, that we
allow greater amounts of goods, that do things to improve the
humanitarian situation,” one Israeli official said of the US position
“There’s clearly sympathy in the administration for Israel’s security
concerns as a reason to sustain its approach,” noted David Makovsky of
the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He said he expected changes on US policy to be ones of degree and streamlining.
“They’ll likely want to see the policy adjusted without a wholesale
change,” he said. “Justifiably, the US is not going to challenge Israel
on its legitimate security concerns.”
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.