US: Gaza blockade has helped Hamas

Position likely to be conveyed to PM in Washington; Olmert: 'Hour of decision' on Gaza is approaching.

olmert knesset 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
olmert knesset 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Israel's continued blockade of the Gaza Strip is misguided and has helped rather than harmed Hamas, a senior State Department official told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. The State Department is likely to convey its unhappiness regarding Israel's Gaza policy to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he arrives in Washington before dawn on Tuesday. His three-day visit will include a meeting with US President George W. Bush and a keynote address to the annual AIPAC policy conference. "What we're telling the Israelis is that the policy that was adopted after the summer [of June 2007] wasn't working, of really closing the borders," said a senior State Department official. On Monday night, Olmert said that the "hour of decision" was approaching regarding continued Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, pledging that the attacks, which have continued unabated for seven years, will be stopped "one way or another." "I said in the past that I prefer the path of dialogue, but as long as all the steps we take do not lead to the hoped-for calm, we will be forced to turn to the sword," Olmert said at the official Jerusalem Day ceremony at Ammunition Hill, marking 41 years since the reunification of the capital. "We will brandish it in a heavy, sharp and painful manner." "I say to the residents of Sderot and the Gaza envelope: My heart and thoughts are with you," he added. "You pay the ongoing price which effects your way of life, primarily that of your children. The hour of decision is approaching, after which you too will have the longed-for quiet. The threat towards you will also be removed, one way or another." The beleaguered premier, who is facing growing calls for his ouster in the wake of the latest in a series of corruption scandals, made the remarks just hours before he left for Washington in what could be his last visit to the US capital as prime minister, and after months of on-again, off-again negotiations for an Egyptian-mediated truce with Hamas have failed to bear fruit. Olmert arrives in Washington in the midst of a stiff diplomatic agenda that includes peace talks with Syria and a 2008 deadline to come to a final status agreement with the Palestinians. But he leaves Israel under threat of a possible indictment for money laundering that has shaken his coalition and left politicians scrambling to work toward new elections. The senior State Department official said that Olmert's political situation was a "challenge" but that the US remains "confident that there's broad support within Israeli society for a two-state solution." The United States, he said, was still looking for an agreement by the end of Bush's term. The peace process, he said, "is not just the work of one person." "We remain positive about it, despite all the obstacles and challenges," he said, indicating there are other challenges, not just Olmert's political prospects. Israeli media on Monday speculated that this could be Olmert's last trip, with Channel 1 adding in that he had thought of canceling it. But Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev refused to comment on the matter, stating only, "We have a lot of work on the agenda that needs to be done and we want to do that work." Part of that work is likely to be new look at Israel's continued closure of the Gaza borders to all but humanitarian aid and basic supplies. Hamas's violent take over of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 suspended all border agreements on movement and access. Those agreements have been hard to implement in light of Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel and given that there has been no agreed-upon body to replace Fatah, which until last summer had controlled the border crossings. Israel has held the opinion that a blockade of Gaza would also weaken Hamas's hold on the strip. But the senior State Department official told the Post that policy has appeared to have backfired. Palestinian rocket attacks against southern Israel have continued and Hamas is gaining strength due to popular disaffection, while Hamas can still get the resources it needs. "Within Gaza, Hamas seems the least affected by the closure," he said. A new approach must be found "that wouldn't benefit Hamas... but to find that new approach is very difficult because Hamas is in control." Among the ideas US officials will kick around with Israel is a new look at the possibility of monitors and the defunct agreement on movement and access. "You could envision Rafah being open under an agreement on movement and access with EU monitors. But all of that requires in some ways Hamas's acquiescence," he said. He also called the idea of having some sort of international force between Israel and Gaza a "creative idea." Regev said he imagined that Gaza would be on the agenda with the US, as well as the Egyptian brokered talks on a cease fire. Egypt, the State Department official said, has been playing a "constructive role," adding that Egypt has been making "more of an effort" when it comes to smuggling. According to Regev, other diplomatic issues such as the new developments in Lebanon, Iran's nuclear threat and the newly publicized Syrian talks will also be on the agenda. At a recent State Department briefing, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that, if asked, the US would consider participating in the talks, which until now have been brokered by Turkey. He added that no such request had been made. McCormack gave tacit support to the talks, which the US had opposed in the past, when he said, "We have made very clear our views that if both sides to this issue, Syria and Israel, would like to try to explore something, then they should do so. "The only admonition," he said, "is that that shouldn't be as a substitute or in any way take away from the direct negotiations that are currently under way on the Israeli-Palestinian track."