The security cabinet on Sunday lifted nearly three years of restrictions on civilian goods allowed into the Gaza Strip, in the hope – according to senior diplomatic sources – that Israel would now have international legitimacy for the more important naval blockade, aimed at keeping out heavy weapons.
RELATED:Peres: Terror stops, blockade endsUN welcomes blockade decision
“Our government’s policy towards Gaza is clear,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a meeting with Quartet envoy Tony Blair soon after the security cabinet’s decision.
“Israel seeks to keep out of Gaza weapons and war-supporting materiel that Hamas uses to prepare and carry out terror and rocket attacks against Israel and its civilians.
All other goods will be allowed into Gaza.”
Blair, according to diplomatic sources, was instrumental in drawing up the steps Israel took to reverse the restrictions on civilian goods into Gaza; each word in the security cabinet decision was vetted by him, and – by extension – had the approval of the Quartet he represents: the US, EU, Russia and the UN.
“Three days ago, Israel announced its intention to liberalize its Gaza policy,” Blair said. “We have now agreed principles of implementation.
“Let me state right at the outset that Israel has the complete right to protect its security and to keep arms out of Gaza. The new policy allows first for a change from a list of permitted items to those not permitted.
Everything else as the prime minister has just indicated is to be allowed into Gaza. “ One Israeli official said that what this effectively means is that Israel has ended any restriction on civilian goods into Gaza, while retaining – with international legitimacy – the security blockade.
He said that with the Quartet signed off on the new policy, attempts by boats to break the naval blockade will have far less international legitimacy.
The decision comes some three weeks after an IDF raid on a Turkish-flagged ship trying to break the naval blockade left nine people dead, and led to an international condemnation of Israel’s Gaza policies and demands to change them.
“We have said yes to coriander, but not to Kassams,” one official in the Prime Minister’s Office explained Sunday.
The official said that the land blockade, initiate by Ehud Olmert’s government in September 2007, was aimed at weakening Hamas and gaining the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. The lack of progress on either front, he said, was behind the change in policy.
Following the meeting of the security cabinet, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying Israel has decided on the following steps: • It would publish a list of items not permitted into Gaza that is limited to weapons and war materiel, including problematic dual-use items. All items not on this list will be permitted.
• It will enable and expand the inflow of dual-use construction materials for approved PA-authorized projects (schools, health facilities, water, sanitation, etc.) that are under international supervision and for housing projects … Israel intends to accelerate the approval of such projects in accordance with accepted mechanisms and procedures.
• It will expand operations at the existing operating land crossings… and, as more processing capacity becomes necessary and when security concerns are fully addressed, open additional land crossings.
• It will streamline the policy of permitting the entry and exit of people for humanitarian and medical reasons and that of employees of international aid organizations that are recognized by Israel. As conditions improve, Israel will consider additional ways to facilitate the movement of people to and from Gaza.
• Israel will continue to facilitate the expeditious inspection and delivery of goods bound for Gaza through the Port of Ashdod.
The statement made clear that Israel would continue to “prevent the flow into and out of Gaza of terrorist operatives, weapons, war material and dual-use items which enhance the military capability of Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza.”
Taking note that Schalit is approaching four years of captivity, the statement called on the international community to “join Israel in strongly condemning those who hold him captive and in redoubling their efforts to secure his immediate release.”
Diplomatic officials said that Israel was considering allowing the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), an EU supervisory body that monitored the Rafah closing for some 18 months from 2005 to 2007, to be present at the other land crossings.
The official also said that the US has for some time asked that other crossings, in addition to the ones at Erez, Kerem Shalom, Karni and Kissufim – be opened.
Netanyahu said in private conversations Sunday evening that the significance of the decision was it meant there would not longer be a civilian closure on Gaza, but there would be a security blockade.
“And it will get tighter,” he said of the security blockade.
“We have taken away from Hamas the ability to blame Israel for harming the civilian population, and have received international legitimacy for continuing the security blockade of Hamas.”
One source close to Netanyahu said “the new policy will allow the free transfer of pasta into Gaza, strengthens our ability to stand before the world and get legitimacy for the security blockade. It also strengthens our moral position in our demand that the international community act with determination to free Gilad Schalit.”
The fact is, the source continued, that "the closure in place until now did not help free Gilad for years. The previous policy that limited coriander, made it more difficult for Isarel to maintain the security closure, because even our friends in the world criticized this policy."
Netanyahu will be bringing this new policy to the White House early next month, where he is scheduled to hold his fifth meeting with US President Barack Obama.
Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC News on Sunday that Obama has invited Netanyahu back to Washington on July 6. Netanyahu had to postpone a planned meeting with Obama at the end of last month because of the IDF raid on the Gaza flotilla.
Emanuel replied “yes” when asked whether Netanyahu was the type of leader willing to take “big risks” for peace.
“But it’s not important what Rahm believes,” he added. “I mean he [Netanyahu] has been clear about what he intends to do, what he needs to do. And the president has been clear what we need to do to seize this moment of opportunity here in the region to finally make peace.”
The White House issued a statement Sunday welcoming the new Israeli policy on Gaza, and saying once implemented “we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, while preventing the entry of weapons. We will work with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet, and other international partners to ensure these arrangements are implemented as quickly and effectively as possible and to explore additional ways to improve the situation in Gaza, including greater freedom of movement and commerce between Gaza and the West Bank.
The statement said the US strongly reaffirmed Israel’s “right to self-defense, and our commitment to work with Israel and our international partners to prevent the illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza.”
In a reference to the current wave of boats trying to break the naval blockade, the statement also urged “all those wishing to deliver goods to do so through established channels so that their cargo can be inspected and transferred via land crossings into Gaza.
There is no need for unnecessary confrontations, and we call on all parties to act responsibly in meeting the needs of the people of Gaza.”
In addition to the trip to Washington, Netanyahu will – at the end of June – meet Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov, who will be making his first visit here in months. Israel is expected to thank the Russians for voting for the recent UN Security Council sanctions against Iran that includes a ban on Russia’s delivery of the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Iran.
The Israel Navy, meanwhile, continued Sunday to maintain a high level of alert ahead of the possibility that two ships will set sail from Lebanon and try to break sea blockade on the Gaza Strip.
“We have to be on high alert at all times since if they make a run for it, the ships could be in Gaza waters in just a few hours,” one officer said.
Defense officials said that the navy would take extra precautions when trying to stop the ships and planned to operate under the assumption that terrorist elements or provocateurs will be on board.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.