"This is the beginning of the total collapse of the siege."
So said Hanin Zuabi, an Israeli Arab member of the parliament who was aboard the flotilla that was attacked by Israel on May 31. That judgment may be a bit premature, however, and both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are being far more cautious in their assessments of the Israeli decision to weaken its blockade of Gaza.
Skepticism abounds, and with good reason. But yesterday's decision by Israel is an important step that could unlock the frozen Middle East peace process. Israel deserves no applause for its action, since the blockade was wrong in the first place and since it remains unclear how far the Israelis will go in implementing the new rules. Simultaneously with the announcement by the Israeli cabinet, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu set a meeting in Washington on July 6, at which the president will have to read the prime minister the riot act if there is to be any forward movement in talks.
Aluf Benn, writing in the liberal daily Haaretz, gives credit where credit is due: to Turkey and its prime minister, for their support of the flotilla:
"Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can claim a big check mark for himself, despite the Turkish flotilla not having reached Gaza and nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara ship having been killed during the raid in May. Erdogan achieved his goal: He collapsed the Israeli siege on ‘Hamastan.' The cabinet announcement on Sunday put an end to the three-year-old civilian blockade on Gaza, initiated when Hamas took power."
Benn goes a little too far, of course. The siege hasn't ended yet, and it's unclear precisely what commodities will be allowed to flow in and out of Gaza. The naval blockade remains, but land crossings are to be reopened, while being carefully controlled by the Israeli armed forces. But Netanyahu himself said that while Israel will prevent "weapons and war-supporting material" from entering Gaza, "All other goods will be allowed into Gaza."
We'll see. There are major questions about how it will work out. Construction materials and equipment, for instance, will be allowed only when tied to projects approved by the Palestinian Authority and carried out under international supervision, i.e., not by Hamas.
A White House statement, issued Sunday, stressed the importance of the implementation of the new arrangements, saying:
"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. There is more to be done, and the President looks forward to discussing this new policy, and additional steps, with Prime Minister Netanyahu during his visit to Washington on July 6."
Spokesmen for IHH, the Turkish organization that helped to assemble the flotilla, are taking credit, cautiously. Said Hossein Orush, an IHH board member:
"We will continue to struggle until the blockade is completely removed and Palestine achieves independence. Israel must pay the price for its illegal actions in the international court and be subjected to an international committee that will probe the outcome of the flotilla."
And the IHH spokesman Omar Faruk said:
"This is a victory for the people of Gaza and their joint struggle with the humanitarian organizations. ... We are still not entirely pleased and will continue to act toward the complete removal of the blockade on Gaza."