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Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout becomes rallying cry for U.S. Jews

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Baltimore Jews rally June 4 in support of Israel. Rebecca Gardner/Baltimore Zionist District

The last time American Jews took to the streets in significant numbers to make the case for Israel’s right to defend itself, during Israel’s war with Hamas in early 2009, rockets were raining down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

This time it’s a public relations war rather than a military one that has sent American Jews into the streets warning that a campaign is under way to wipe Israel off the map.

In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds, and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Why did Israel even have to resort to blockade?” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. “Because blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically de-legitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.”

“If none of these is permissible, what’s left?” Krauthammer asked rhetorically. “Nothing,” he answered. “The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide.”

As with the Gaza war, and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel’s defenders see in the global assault on Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza — a territory controlled by an organization committed to Israel’s destruction — nothing less than a threat to Israel’s existence.

“Once again, my friends, Israel is under siege,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, declared at a pro-Israel rally Sunday in Los Angeles opposite the local Israeli consulate.

Some 3,000 people showed up for the demonstration, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The international outcry against Israel is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state, Israeli Consul Jacob Dayan warned the crowd.

“Enough of the campaign of lies spread by the defenders of terror,” Dayan said. “Those on the flotilla were not peace activists.”

The precipitating incident occurred May 31, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks upon encountering violent resistance to their effort to board a ship in international waters that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla bearing aid materials and pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident became a rallying cry for pro-Palestinian activists, who held rallies across the country and around the world protesting against Israel, including at some Jewish sites. In downtown Cleveland, some three dozen protesters stood outside the Jewish federation building last Friday chanting slogans and holding signs including “Stop Israel Pirates.” In Washington, activists flocked to the Israeli Embassy calling for it to be shut down.

Many Jewish groups said the worldwide reaction to the flotilla incident smacked of hypocrisy.

“Why did we not hear the same voices of condemnation raised as thousands of rockets poured down on Israel or on behalf of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas more than four years ago and held incommunicado ever since?” the main Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked in a statement.

The Jews countered with rallies of their own in communities across the country.

In Baltimore, several dozen demonstrators stood at a busy intersection in 90-degree heat waving Israeli flags and placards calling for the release of Shalit, an Israeli soldier, and blaming Turkey for the flotilla incident. In New York, demonstrators gathered across from the United Nations and at other rallies scattered around the metropolitan area. In Philadelphia, some 250 pro-Israel demonstrators gathered last Friday across the street from the Israeli consulate at a rally organized by the Zionist Organization of America, providing a counterpoint to the pro-Palestinian demonstration that had taken place three days earlier at the same site.

To be sure, American Jews have not been uniformly supportive of Israel’s actions on the high seas. Some American Jewish groups questioned the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the way the flotilla raid was conducted. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu all issued statements critical of Israel’s Gaza policies.

“There wouldn’t have been a flotilla if Gazan children had enough food, had schools, and clean water to drink,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel lobbying group, told JTA.

“This is not a hasbara problem,” he said, using the Israeli term for public relations. “For decades Israel and friends of Israel have complained about a hasbara problem. What they have is an occupation problem,” Ben-Ami said. “We can either complain about the way the world views Israel or change the way we behave.”

While some American Jews and many Israelis said they support the blockade of Gaza in principle but disagree with elements of its implementation and the way the Israeli navy handled the flotilla interception, that nuance was not readily apparent at the pro-Israel rallies across the nation. Rather, the message at the demonstrations was kept simple: We stand behind Israel.

One speaker at the L.A. rally, David Pine, West Coast regional director for Peace Now, tried to deviate from that message, saying, “Despite the way one individual military operation was handled, ultimately it will take a negotiated resolution that provides for a two-state solution.” He was drowned out by a chorus of boos. When the chairman of the local Jewish federation, Richard Sandler, tried to quiet the crowd, audience members continued to boo Pine, with one yelling out, “Traitor!”

In Philadelphia, Steve Feldman, director of the greater Philadelphia district of the ZOA, summed up the approach he expected of supporters of Israel.

“I would not be satisfied,” he said, “until every Jewish person in the Philadelphia area, every person of good conscience in the area, everybody who knows right from wrong in the area, will be out supporting Israel, because Israel is in the right.”

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Israeli grass-roots effort fights flotilla fallout

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A scene from the video satire “We Con the World,” which mocks the outpouring of condemnation of Israel’s flotilla raid. Latma

TEL AVIV – Two days after last week’s flotilla incident, with Israel weathering a hailstorm of international condemnation, a group of young Israelis hunkered down in a Tel Aviv recording studio to produce a satirical music video they hoped would become a weapon in the battle for world opinion.

“We Con the World,” a spoof of the 1985 Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie song “We Are the World,” was promptly e-mailed, Facebooked, and Twittered around the globe, becoming an instant YouTube phenomenon. (See jstandard.com/thebiglipowsky.) As of Tuesday, it had received some 2 million hits.

The lead singer, dressed in the white hat of a ship’s captain and given the name “Captain Stabbing” (a reference to Captain Stubing of the TV show “Love Boat” fame), opens by crooning in a thick mock Turkish accent, “There comes a time when we need to make a show, for the world, the Web, and CNN.”

Singing in a Jackson-style falsetto, another character picks up the tune: “We’ll make the world abandon reason. We’ll make them all believe that the Hamas is Momma Teresa.”

The video is one of several grass-roots Israeli efforts to put out a pro-Israel message to the world in the wake of the confrontation aboard one of the ships on the Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine Turkish activists dead and several Israeli navy commandos injured. The confrontation has stoked worldwide anger at Israel.

In a bid to redirect that anger and lay the blame where they believe it should lie — the Turkish activists who they say provoked the confrontation at sea and the anti-Israel terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, Hamas — some Israelis are mounting their own citizen responses to make the case for Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Gaza and tough line toward Hamas.

These Israelis, many of them young, have established new groups on the online social networking site Facebook and built new websites to promote Israel’s perspective on the flotilla raid as well as on the blockade of Gaza. One student group even plans to launch its own flotilla — a fleet of boats it hopes will humiliate Turkey by calling attention to the plight of the Armenians and Kurds, who are known to be suffering under the Turks.

Israel maintains it was acting in self-defense after passengers on one of the Gaza-bound ships in the flotilla attacked Israeli commandos boarding the ship with clubs, knives, and even two pistols stolen from the soldiers. Critics of Israel’s actions have promoted a different narrative of the May 31 raid, painting Israel as the aggressor against an aid shipment in international waters.

Just two hours after the flotilla incident, Dan Illouz, 24, said he created a Facebook group called “The Truth About Israel’s Defensive Actions Against the Flotilla.” A recent Canadian immigrant to Israel and law school graduate, the group soon took off and now has more than 70,000 members.

“I saw there was no response from the government and I wanted to get something out there,” he said. “I know people from the navy and I knew stories on the news made no sense, and I wanted to get a group of people together to spread the story once it was available.”

Illouz also formed a new Website, Israelflotilla.weebly.com, to accompany the Facebook page. He can track who views and forwards his posts, and through the Website he has formed a group of some 200 volunteers who use his talking points in letters to newspaper editors and their elected officials.

“It’s not the first time Israel has been attacked, and every time we see a lot of media bias,” Illouz said. “There is a need out there to train Israel advocates in social media, a new generation of leaders who understand this sort of communication.”

The Israeli branch of the advocacy group StandWithUs, which works mostly with university and college students, also was quick to form its own online messages, creating a Website called Flotilla Facts.

“The idea of Websites is a multiplier,” said Michael Dickson, the Israel director of StandWithUs. “The messages and images and videos we find most effective we put in bullet-point form that can be understood and re-sent. We also have them in Tweet form to be sent out on Twitter,” the online messaging service.

The site is viewable in 14 languages, including Turkish. Dickson said readers from Turkey represented the fifth largest group visiting the site. One of the videos the site helped circulate was “We Con the World.”

Karni Eldad, 36, a music producer, helped produce the “We Con the World” video.

“It struck a chord because people know that the media coverage was one-sided,” she said. “Nobody wants to hear more about the fighting, but when you talk in a funny way you get a laugh. And you get the truth.”

Eldad, whose father is Knesset member Arieh Eldad of the right-wing National Union Party, said, “So many people have watched it; it’s unbelievable. I am proud it’s made an impression, that it’s had an effect.”

Arieh Eldad praised the work of his daughter, who — together with friends who run a political satire group called Latma led by Jerusalem Post Deputy Managing Editor Caroline Glick — created the video.

“It shows how individuals and civilians feel something wrong has been done to the State of Israel by the international community, and this is a way to stand up and expose that hypocrisy,” Arieh Eldad said. “It’s a very efficient tool for doing that.”

Shlomo Balas, the director of the Latma Website, told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that he decided to strike back with satire the day of the raid.

“The blood was boiling in my veins,” he said. “I immediately called the site editor, Caroline Glick, and said to her, ‘We have to do something.’”

A report in Yediot congratulated the video’s creators, saying they had “defended Israel better than any of the experts.”

Not everyone was a fan, however. Some in Israel and abroad have criticized the video’s depiction of keffiyah-wearing, knife-wielding Arabs as carrying racist, anti-Muslim overtones.

Israel’s Government Press Office initially sent an e-mail to foreign correspondents with the video. Soon after, an e-mail was sent rescinding the message and stating that the video had been sent by mistake.

(To watch the video, and for more updates on the flotilla fallout, visit www.jta.org/bigstory.)

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

'Iran has been stirring the pot'

Much of the international spotlight these past two weeks has focused on Israel, which, according to political analysts, is exactly what Iran wants — to deflect attention from its nuclear pursuits.

Even as the U.N. Security Council passed another round of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday, worldwide concern grew that the Islamic Republic could spark a military conflict in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey, which launched last week’s flotilla, has increasingly aligned itself with Iran — which also pulls the strings of Hamas and Hezbollah — stoking more fears of a new regional terror-supporting alliance.

“Iran has been stirring the pot,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers, Newark. “It’s no secret that weapons from Iran and individuals from Iran have found their way to Gaza — smuggled in via Iran’s friends from Syria and elsewhere.”

The Iranian Red Crescent — the equivalent of the Red Cross — announced plans this week that it planned to launch its own aid flotilla to Gaza. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has said that it would escort such a flotilla if ordered.

“To openly engage Israeli forces, which is what would happen if openly identified Iranian contingents tried to break the blockade, would be a huge escalation in Middle East tension to have Israeli and Iranian military forces shooting at each other,” Cole said. “If initiated in Israel’s neighborhood, it could well escalate into Israeli military action much closer to or directly at Iran.”

The Iranians are trying to make a statement, said Iran analyst and Fox News guest commentator Lisa Daftari. And, she added, Israel has not said how it would specifically respond to such a provocation — except that it would not allow Iranian ships through the blockade.

“Iran has flexed its muscles and shown it can politically run circles around our government,” said Daftari, a Paramus native. “While we’re having summits and meetings, thinking how to next negotiate with Iran, Iran is carrying on its own agenda.”

Cole does not believe Iran would carry out its threat to openly send military forces to Gaza because it’s not interested in a conflict in the Mediterranean. Daftari declined to hazard a guess as to what might happen if Iran tries to break the blockade, but said the government is looking to shift blame onto Israel for any regional conflict. If the activists aboard last week’s flotilla actually cared about getting aid to the Palestinians, she said, they would have diverted to Israel’s Ashdod port as requested.

“The Palestinian people are not the main issue,” she said. “There’s an Islamist agenda here that Iran has been carrying on for years.”

Iran would like to get rid of Israel, said Dan Kurzman, the North Bergen resident who penned biographies of former Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Mutually Assured Destruction kept the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal in check during the Cold War, but Kurzman does not think that policy would work with Iran.

“These guys in Iran are not rational,” he said. “If they’re willing to kill themselves because God wants them to, why should they care if they kill a million Jews? This is really dangerous.”

To head off the Iranian threat, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said. After that, it can more easily forge deals with the rest of the Arab world against Iran.

“The Arab world doesn’t fear Israel,” Kurzman said, “but it does fear Iran.”

Because of this, Israel has a chance to pull the Arabs to its side — if it can make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said.

“Iran says they want to destroy Israel with an atom bomb and they’re close to getting a bomb. All of this wouldn’t have happened if there was peace,” he said. “They wouldn’t have an excuse for getting a bomb.”

The author cast blame on Israel not just for its handling of the Mavi Marmara, but also what he called the collective punishment of Gaza. He agreed that cargo should be inspected before entering the coastal strip but he railed against the blockade.

“It’s the wrong policy from the beginning,” he said. “You don’t punch everybody for what the terrorists do. It’s really shooting yourself in the foot. Israel is now in a terrible position where the whole world’s against them.”

Despite the provocations aboard the Mavi Marmara, Kurzman said, Israel made a mistake in the way it handled the activists.

“There are ways of stopping a ship and making them come to a halt and eventually getting on board to check on this stuff,” he said. “It’s riot control. There was a riot aboard the ship, and in a riot you don’t just shoot into crowds. This was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided.”

Kurzman recalled that after the Six Day War, Ben-Gurion said there was no chance of making peace if Israel didn’t give up the west bank. Neither Ben-Gurion nor Rabin would have agreed to give up Gaza without a peace treaty, though, Kurzman noted. He called the disengagement from Gaza an “absolute disaster.”

“Israel brought this on itself,” Kurzman said. “That’s the great tragedy of history. Israel thinks it’s invincible, but it isn’t.”

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Out of the mouths of babes…

The college campus has been a battleground for public opinion on Israel for several years now, and the flotilla fiasco is sure to create passionate debate there. Jewish educators are moving quickly to get the facts out to high school and college students so they can be better prepared for what’s ahead.

“It’s important they know how to respond substantively. It’s important they know how to respond for their own Jewish pride so they do not feel like a victim,” said Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, director of the New Jersey region of National Council of Synagogue Youth, whose office is in Teaneck.

NCSY’s national office, under the auspices of the Orthodox Union in New York, recently sent out a list of talking points to its regions to teach teenagers the facts of the flotilla incident so they can respond constructively when Israel is criticized.

Hillel of Northern New Jersey, run by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, Bergen Community College in Paramus, William Paterson University in Wayne, and Ramapo College in Mahwah, is on a summer hiatus but is planning for the fall, said director Rabbi Ely Allen.

Hillel is considering a number of Israel advocacy programs such as The David Project and Stand With Us to partner with in the fall, Allen said.

Stuart Levy, UJA-NNJ’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, is beginning work on a program to teach high school upperclassmen and college students the history of the region in order to make them more effective spokespeople for Israel.

“That’s where you really need to give the tools and the information to make it work,” Levy said.

Unlike the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when Israel responded to Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers and launching of thousands of rockets at the Jewish state, Israel is much more isolated in this public relations battle, and kids feel that, Glasser said. That, he said, combined with the fact that so much of this campaign is being waged on the Internet — specifically on social networking sites such as Facebook — can affect teenagers’ confidence in defending the Jewish state.

“There’s more sense of being cornered,” he said. “The teenagers in this particular instance really are feeling the overwhelming display of criticism from around the world. The sense of [Israel’s] isolation is one the kids are plugged into.”

United Synagogue Youth, part of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has been forwarding e-mail and other resources to its regions, but its members have really taken on the battle on social networking sites, said USY director Jules Gutin, a Teaneck resident.

“There’s a lot that has appeared on various social networking sites that the leadership of USY has forwarded to each other,” he said. Members “have such an active network among themselves, and the leadership has such an active network.”

Gutin highlighted what teens can do because of their vast connections through the Internet.

“They can play a very important role, both among their peers and communities, in trying to do their best to make sure the facts come through and trying to counter much of the distortion that we see in newspapers and the press and various speeches,” he said.

Glasser would like to see more parents draw their children into current-events discussions and encourage them to voice their opinions.

“If you want them to connect to Israel, you have to connect them to the discussion,” Glasser said.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: Political poker

New Jersey’s elected officials on both sides of the aisle appeared steadfast in their support of Israel after last week’s flotilla raid as Jewish leaders continued to lobby on behalf of the Jewish state.

“The most important thing that we as Americans can do,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, and former president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “is let our elected officials know that we feel strongly that Israel’s insistence on inspecting goods that are being brought into Gaza is entirely justified. If the tendency by some in the United States to curry favor with the Muslim world trumps the absolute requirement for fairness and support for the only democratic regime in that area, then we’re giving up the moral high ground.”

It is not in America’s best interests, Cole continued, to weaken in its support of an ally — in this case Israel — lest other allies begin to feel they cannot count on U.S. support.

The State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents New Jersey’s federations in Trenton, is pressing state legislators to support Israel. Its director, Jacob Toporek, issued an open letter to Gov. Christie and the 120-member state legislature last week outlining the reasons for Israel’s blockade and its actions. Almost immediately, he said, he received a call from Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin of Monmouth County, who said she would introduce a resolution supporting Israel based on the letter.

“That’s a terrific response, unexpected, and we’re very pleased by it,” Toporek said.

“It’s all a public relations game. This open letter and resolution would be very, very helpful.”

Christie’s office acknowledged the letter on Wednesday but had no comment at that time.

“Hopefully as time passes and the outside world sees how Israel is really treating groups trying to bring in outside aid,” Toporek said, “they’ll realize what happened is a confrontation set up by those supportive of Hamas and who intend to put Israel in the worst light.”

NORPAC, the Englewood-based pro-Israel lobby, has been calling members of Congress to emphasize that Israel’s blockade is more of an arms embargo on Hamas, said the group’s president, Ben Chouake. Response on the Hill has been very positive, he told The Jewish Standard.

“They fully understand that Hamas is a terrorist group, that they’ve been overtly aggressive to the civilian population of Israel; they oppress their own people, and a flotilla of militants provoked violence against Israeli soldiers who gave them adequate warning and were peacefully trying to enforce an arms quarantine,” Chouake said.

At least among New Jersey’s representatives in Washington, NORPAC appears to be getting its message across.

“My colleagues understand that Israel has a legitimate right and important need to protect its citizens from rockets and guided missiles being brought to Gaza,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) told the Standard on Wednesday. “There is some regret over the loss of life, not withstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Asked why President Obama has not firmly come out in support of Israel in this incident, Rothman credited the president for preventing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel and calling for an international inquiry.

“In diplomacy, it is often the case that the most powerful and effective operations occur behind the scenes and that is what’s happened here,” Rothman said. “In my opinion — and in the view of the good guys as well as the bad guys around the world — actions always speak louder than words. Sometimes soothing words are possible along with quiet diplomacy, but sometimes they are not.”

Rothman’s colleagues in Washington issued their own statements supporting Israel’s actions.

“Israel has every right to defend itself and enforce its blockade against the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg said in a statement sent to this newspaper. “The organizations operating the flotilla made their intention to violate the blockade clear and refused Israel’s repeated offers to process the aid through appropriate channels. Clearly, there were people aboard the lead ship who were intent on violence and sparked the tragic events.”

In a statement to the Standard earlier this week, Sen. Bob Menendez outlined the necessity for Israel’s blockade.

“If the blockade were to be broken,” he said in the statement, “it would be impossible to tell which vessels were carrying humanitarian supplies and which were carrying deadly rockets. The bottom line is that the attempt to prevent materials that could be used against Israel from reaching Hamas is of vital interest to Israel and to its national security, and I fully support it.”

The senator went on to emphasize that the international reaction to last week’s incident could legitimize Hamas, which would undermine the peace process.
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said that it was regrettable that lives were lost in the raid but praised the bipartisan support for Israel in both houses of Congress. He affirmed Israel’s “right to protect its citizens.”
“It is crucial for the United States to stand beside Israel during these tumultuous times and I am heartened by the bipartisan Congressional support for Israel’s recent actions,” he said in a statement to this newspaper. “I believe the strategic relationship between our two democratic governments will continue to withstand the threats and actions of terrorists who seek to create a rift between our two nations.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) pointed to the need to keep weapons out of Gaza.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and its borders and to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons and missiles that it has proven it will use to attack innocent Israeli civilians with little restraint,” he said in a statement to the Standard on Tuesday.

Pascrell took a more sympathetic tone toward the people of Gaza, pointing out what he called “the ongoing humanitarian crisis” there. The current situation there, he said, is “unacceptable and unsustainable.”

“I am pleased the Israeli government has shown signs that it will consider modifications to their blockade,” the statement continued. “I believe that we can allow humanitarian goods to enter the territory while still ensuring that weapons are not imported and Hamas is not resupplied.”

Breaking from his colleagues, Pascrell called for the creation of an independent commission to conduct an impartial investigation of the flotilla incident.

“We are grateful that the leadership of the United States has been supportive in this matter,” Chouake said. “They well recognize the need for Israel to defend itself against the terrorist group Hamas and it is important to prevent arms from reaching these terrorists.”

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Israel facing tough choices on Gaza as criticism of blockade mounts

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Following the Israeli navy’s takeover of the Gaza bound flotilla, Jerusalem is facing tough questions about its blockade of the Palestinian area. Moti Milrod/Pool/Flash90

JERUSALEM – Despite the international outcry following last week’s lethal confrontation between Israeli commandos and militant pro-Palestinian activists aboard a Turkish vessel carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israel insists its naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory is justified and will continue.

But even Israel’s closest allies backing the blockade as a legitimate means of cutting off weapons supplies to the Hamas regime, with which Israel is in an official state of belligerency, have been critical of the wider siege, which they say is hurting the people of Gaza far more than their fundamentalist rulers.

The new international predicament in which Israel finds itself raises a number of fundamental questions: How necessary is the blockade and how effective has it been? Why was it imposed in the first place? Why was it accompanied by a wider siege blocking civilian goods and movement? And what should Israel do in the face of the storm of international protest?

The blockade-siege in its present form was imposed in June 2007.

Hamas won a majority of parliamentary seats in Palestinian elections in 2006, and it formed a unity government with Abbas’ Fatah Party. The following year, Hamas staged a violent coup and took complete control of Gaza.

Israel and Egypt responded by closing land crossings into Gaza, and Israel reinstituted a naval blockade on the Gaza coast.

Israel’s rationale was that after hundreds of Hamas-inspired rocket attacks, it needed to do whatever it could to keep weapons, weapons’ manufacturing parts, and bunker-building materials out of Gaza. The siege, which also limited civilian supplies, was intended to put pressure on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit and possibly even to induce popular rebellion against Hamas.

In September 2007, following dozens more rocket attacks, Israel officially declared Gaza “a hostile territory,” buttressing legal justification for its hostile moves against it.

Moreover, by stifling economic development and living standards in Gaza while promoting them in the west bank, Israel was signaling to the Palestinians that Abbas-style coexistence would get them further than Hamas’ blanket rejectionism.

The Egyptians, concerned that Hamas radicalism could spill over into their territory, argued that opening their border with Gaza would imply recognition of the Hamas government and further undermine the legitimacy of the PA. Formally Egypt insisted on faithfully carrying out the provisions of a November 2005 agreement that provided for supervision of its Rafah crossing point with Gaza by PA and European monitors, a provision rejected by Hamas.

The 2005 “Agreement on Movement and Access” was meant to put the finishing touches on Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza two months earlier. Brokered by the United States, the aim was to ease the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza and thus enhance Palestinian productivity.

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Members of Russian American Jewish Experience and other Jewish organizations gathered outside the Israeli consulate in New York on June 1 in a show of solidarity with Israel. Ross Den

Under its terms, the main land crossing points at Rafah, Kerem Shalom, and Karni would be fully opened. There was no thought at the time of a naval blockade. On the contrary, work on a feasibility study for an independent Palestinian deepwater port in Gaza was under way.

Dov Weissglas, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s right-hand man, says that with Israel out of Gaza, the Palestinians promised an economic miracle, arguing that without the occupation to hold them back, they would show the world what Palestinians could do if given a chance and turn Gaza into a new Singapore.

According to Weissglas, plans for five-star hotels along the coast and an airport at Dahaniya were far advanced, with former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, then the international Quartet’s special representative, playing a leading role. The idea was to underpin peace between Gaza and Israel through economic progress, much as in the west bank today. The Hamas takeover, however, put an end to the Singapore dream.

Stepped-up Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians eventually led to Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli land invasion of Gaza in December 2008. After the war ended a month later, Israel’s main concern was to prevent Hamas from rearming.

Talk at the time had German, French, and British ships patrolling the Gaza coast to prevent arms smuggling. But when the idea fell through, mainly at Egypt’s insistence, Israel was left on its own to monitor maritime traffic for weapons. Last November, Israeli Navy vessels intercepted the Francop, an Antigua and Barbuda-flagged ship that was carrying hundreds of tons of Iran-supplied weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon and possibly also Hamas.

On the cover

More than 700 people turned up to show their support for Israel at the StandWithUs rally held on June 3 in Times Square. Hundreds more stopped to watch footage of the IDF boarding the Mavi Marmara while StandWithUs regional coordinator, Avi Posnick, narrated the events.

According to a group spokesman, “This was the first time the footage was shown out on the street, and the point of us doing this was to get this out to the masses.”

On June 9, the organization co-sponsored a rally at the Israeli Consulate, drawing some 2,000 people.

Hamas has been able to continue smuggling weapons through tunnels along the border between Gaza and Egypt. The Israeli fear, though, is that large ships could bring in much bigger rockets and missiles, possibly even game-changing weapons such as the accurate medium range GPS-directed M-600s Hezbollah has received from Syria. Israel sees Gaza and Lebanon as two Iranian forward positions and part of a much wider regional threat.

Many of Israel’s friends recognize its need to check ships approaching the Gaza area for weapons. But there is far less understanding for the limited inflow and often arbitrary exclusion of civilian goods — for example, keeping out unsupervised cement and steel that could be used for building bunkers or making weapons makes sense. And critics ask why thyme, coriander, chocolate, and macaroni are on the exclusion list.

Some critics say the limited influx of goods is causing a humanitarian crisis. Others argue that even if it isn’t, the restrictions constitute a form of collective punishment, which is illegal, even between warring parties.

Israel maintains that no humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza and that it is doing more than enough to prevent one. According to the Israel Defense Forces, which coordinates aid to Gaza, Israel in the first three months of 2010 sent in more than 3,600 trucks with approximately 100,000 tons of fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, animal feed, hygiene products, clothing, and shoes, as well as 1,000 tons of medical equipment.

Moreover, 10,544 Gaza residents were treated last year in Israeli hospitals. According to Western figures, the average life expectancy in Gaza is 73.68 years, compared to about 40 in some African countries, and there is as little malnutrition as in the West.

Israel also supplies 60 percent of Gaza’s electricity, its fuel needs, hypochlorite for water purification, electricity grid repair parts, and glass to fix windows, as well as cement and iron for building, under strict supervision. According to U.N. figures, updated to Jan. 30 of this year, 78 percent of homes lightly damaged in the 2008-09 Gaza war have been repaired. Other observers go even further, pointing to the well-stocked markets in Gaza, the emergence of gourmet restaurants, and the recent launching of a new Olympic-size swimming pool.

Human rights activists contend that although there is plenty of food, not everyone can afford to buy enough to meet basic needs. They say 70 percent of the factories in Gaza are closed, 40 percent of Gaza workers are unemployed, and 60 percent of households are “food insecure” — that is, they can’t be sure of having enough cash for their minimal food needs.

Whatever the true state of humanitarian affairs in Gaza, there is increasingly little tolerance from friends or foes alike of Israel’s limitations on the inflow of civilian goods.

Following a visit to Gaza in March, Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin declared that all the siege is achieving is to “enrich Hamas and marginalize even further the voices of moderation.” And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the siege in its present form as “unsustainable and unacceptable.”

To some extent, it seems, continued Israeli insistence on the civilian blockade could undermine the far more vital military blockade. And that’s precisely what the militant blockade runners aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara and others that might follow are trying to achieve: to delegitimize Israel’s blockade altogether and enable the free entry of all ships to Gaza, even those carrying military cargoes.

Israelis are divided over how to go about maintaining the blockade. The government argues that the best course of action is to make Israel’s moral and legal case, and expose the delegitimizers. The opposition retorts that Israel can only hope to deflect international criticism by embracing credible peace policies. In other words, that criticism of Israel was so spontaneous and severe after the confrontation on the high seas because the government was widely perceived as not being committed to ending the occupation.

Opposition voices also suggest that the government should rethink the civilian siege, which they say has not achieved its goals: After four years in captivity, Shalit has not been released or even so much as allowed a visit by the Red Cross, and there is little sign of the siege sparking an anti-Hamas uprising. They conclude that the failed policy is costing Israel heavily in diplomatic coin, leaving it more isolated than at any other time in its history.

The government faces some big decisions: First, whether to allow an international presence in an inquiry into the confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara; second, whether to ease the civilian siege to ensure continued international backing for the military blockade; and third, whether to present a new initiative on peacemaking with the Palestinians.

JTA

 
 

Engaging with Israel on campus starts with relationships

 

Reaction mixed to announcement on easing of Gaza blockade

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On Monday, the day after Israel announced that it was easing the Gaza blockade, an Israeli truck driver walks by trucks filled with goods bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza is drawing both praise and criticism.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ease land-based civilian imports to the Gaza Strip; the naval blockade will remain in place.

The move garnered praise from the White House, which released a statement Sunday saying it welcomed the new policy toward Gaza.

“Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons,” the statement said. “We strongly re-affirm 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.”

Turkey, which lost nine citizens when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla determined to break the blockade, continued to slam Israel following the announcement.

“If the Israeli government really wishes to prove that they have given up the act of piracy and terror, they should primarily apologize and claim responsibility in the slaying of nine people on May 31,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for European Union affairs, according to The New York Times.

The blockade of Gaza was put into place by Israel and Egypt in June 2007 after Hamas violently wrested power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It was designed to thwart the import of weapons or weapons-capable material into Gaza and pressure the coastal strip’s rulers into releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in 2006.

An economic blockade had been in place since Shalit’s abduction.

Pressure on Israel to ease the latter blockade, which had been climbing steadily, increased dramatically following last month’s Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening to announce the easing of the blockade, reportedly played a central role in establishing the new protocols for Gaza. The Quartet — a grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — issued a statement after Israel’s announcement calling for its rapid implementation and an easing of the conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Under the new rules, all items except those on a published blacklist will be allowed into Gaza. Until now, only items specifically permitted were allowed into Gaza. The blacklist will be limited to weapons and war materiel, including “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian or military purposes. Construction materials for housing projects and projects under international supervision will be permitted, according to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet.

The plan also calls for increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza and opening up more crossings, as well as streamlining the movement of people to and from the strip for medical treatment.

Despite the easing of the land blockade, Israel will continue to inspect all goods bound for Gaza by sea at the port of Ashdod.

Israel called on the international community “to stop the smuggling of weapons and war materiels into Gaza.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised Israel’s plan but took a wait-and-see attitude.

“The test now is how the new policy will be carried out,” he said.

German officials called for a complete end to the blockade in the wake of Israel’s refusal to allow Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, to enter Gaza during a four-day visit to the region.

For their part, Hamas officials said the easing of the blockade was not good enough to relieve the distress of the Gaza population. They called the changes “cosmetic,” according to Ynet.

In Israel, the announcement received mixed reviews. Some lawmakers, including ones from the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party, criticized the government for buckling under pressure, saying the move would strengthen Hamas. But others, such as Labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, praised it. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi called it insufficient, saying the blockade should be lifted completely.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the French news agency AFP that the blockade should be abolished altogether.

“These steps alone are not sufficient,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “and all efforts must be exerted to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.”

JTA

 
 
 
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