'Don't undo blockade, it weakens Hamas'

Israel tells EU FMs: Group's grip on Gaza loosening under embargo.

Tony Blair- expressive 311 (photo credit: AP)
Tony Blair- expressive 311
(photo credit: AP)
With EU foreign ministers scheduled to meet in Brussels Monday to discuss how to ease the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, Israel is trying to convince key players in the EU that the blockade is working, and that Hamas is facing serious financial difficulties and losing popularity.
Senior diplomatic officials said the message Jerusalem has been sending abroad is that Hamas is in trouble politically, economically and in terms of popularity, that the blockade is working, and that this is not the time to lift it.
“Hamas is struggling on all fronts to maintain its hold on Gaza,” one diplomatic official said.
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According to an internal Foreign Ministry document, the blockade has weakened Hamas both politically and economically. According to the paper, the organization is relying on massive financial support for its existence, most of it from Iran, and is currently in the throes of a financial crisis because a clamp down on smuggling on the Egyptian side of the border is making it difficult  to get the money through.
The financial crisis is being felt by Gazans, according to the report, because Hamas has recently decided to levy additional taxes.
One European diplomat said it was clear that both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority were opposed to lifting the blockade, fearing its would give Hamas an infusion of oxygen. What needed to be done, he said, was to ease the blockade in such a way that PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and not Hamas, would get the credit.
This, the official said, will be one of the considerations the EU’s 27 foreign ministers have in mind when they gather Monday in Brussels for their monthly meeting, where they are expected to discuss the Mavi Marmara incident at length, and then issue a statement.
The official said the foreign ministers would juggle four different interests: • Partially alleviating the blockade by easing what is allowed in through land crossings, and not lifting the sea blockade.
• Figuring out a mechanism, perhaps by placing the PA at the land crossings, whereby it would get credit for the increase of goods going into Gaza.
• Ensuring Israel’s security by establishing a mechanism to ensure that neither weapons nor dual-use material can be allowed into Gaza.
• Making it apparent to the international community that the situation in Gaza will improve in order to keep Turkey and others from dispatching additional ships to break the blockade.
The official said the European leaders were under a great deal of pressure from their own public opinion to act.
“You have to remember that nationals from 12 European countries were on the flotilla, and the leaders are under strong pressure from their constituents,” the official said.
The official added that the Europeans were in close coordination with the US on this matter. A high-ranking Spanish Foreign Ministry official was in Washington over the weekend synchronizing positions with the US. Spain currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet earlier Sunday that before the recent flotilla set sail for Gaza, “we discussed – in various forums – the continuation of our policy toward the Gaza Strip. These discussions continued last week in the meetings I held on the subject with Quartet envoy Tony Blair.”
“The principle guiding our policy is clear – to prevent the entry of war materiel from entering Gaza and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid and noncontraband goods into the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu continued. “The aforementioned discussions, which will continue this week, are designed to ensure that this principle is effectively applied.”
Blair released a statement welcoming Netanyahu’s “clear distinction between Israel’s necessity to protect its security and otherwise to allow Gaza people to get the goods and material they require for ordinary life.”
“I hope this will enable us to move decisively to a policy on Gaza which keeps out weapons and other combat-related material but lets in as a matter of course those items that Gazan people need to improve their lives,” Blair said. “This also will enable the UN projects for re-construction to go ahead.”
Blair also called in his statement for the “immediate and unconditional” release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, “whose ongoing detention is totally unjustified.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has asked Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to put into writing a proposal he has been advocating for Israel to close completely its crossings into Gaza, and keep only the Rafah crossing into Egypt open. Under his proposal, air and sea access to Gaza would also be exclusively through Egypt.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said this proposal did not reflect the government’s thinking, but since it was an idea Katz had long advocated, Netanyahu asked him to frame it as a formal proposal.
Diplomatic sources said the likelihood that Egypt would agree to this was close to zero.
The EU foreign ministers are also expected to address the issue of the type of probe Israel set up to investigate the flotilla incident.
Diplomatic officials said there had been talk of the other representative coming from the Quartet, but that this idea had been nixed when Russia made it clear it didn’t want to be involved.
Russia, along with the US, EU and UN, form the Quartet.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has taken a keen interest in the makeup of the committee and has been adamant that it not be allowed to question the soldiers involved in the raid, was forced to cancel his scheduled appearance at the Israeli booth at an arms exhibit in France on Monday to take part in discussions over the flotilla probe.
Pro-Palestinian groups had also threatened to have him arrested in France for “war crimes” related to the raid on the flotilla.
Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is scheduled to travel to Europe on Monday to lobby key European governments to follow up last week’s UN Security Council sanctions against Iran with sanctions of their own.
In an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN, Ayalon said unequivocally Israel will not apologize to Turkey for the raid on Mavi Marmara.
“I don’t think we need to apologize,” he said. “On the contrary, when we need to apologize, or felt that we need to apologize, we have no problem doing it, but there is no way Israel will apologize. It is not for Israel to apologize. Quite the contrary.”
Ayalon will hold meetings in Rome and Paris, and also in the Vatican, where on Tuesday he will take part in the Israel-Vatican Working Commission to discuss a number of bilateral issues.