Blair Hopeful Israel Will Ease Gaza Blockade

LUXEMBOURG -- The intense international diplomacy efforts sparked by the Israeli naval raid on the humanitarian flotilla appeared to be generating results on Monday, as the top Mideast mediator said he was hopeful that Israel would soon ease the Gaza blockade.

Tony Blair told a gathering of European Union foreign ministers that after a series of meetings with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top government officials, "I hope we are now in a position to move forward in this way."

EU officials said Israel had indicated it may reopen some border crossings and allow the EU a greater role in monitoring them on condition that its security concerns are addressed.

"Israel will maintain its blockade in response to weapons and combat material coming into Gaza but allow that those goods that are necessary for ordinary civilian life are brought into Gaza as a matter of course," he told reporters.

Blair said Israel will finally drop a restricted goods list that has blocked items like cement and reinforcement steel, but also fruit preserves and pasta from entering the region. Instead, there would be a short list of banned materials which Israel considers a security threat.

"This is a significant change," Blair said. "I hope very much that what it will allow us to do is to (make) the distinction between keeping weapons out and foodstuffs and materials necessary for ordinary life coming in."

Israel has been increasingly isolated internationally since the May 31 raid on a flotilla including the passenger ship Mavi Marmara, in which nine Turkish activists died.

Paradoxically, that effort to enforce the three-year blockade just might be the thing that ends it. The Israeli government had no immediate comment to Blair's statement, but an Israeli diplomat in Brussels said that if an effective method of preventing the smuggling of weapons to Hamas militants could be devised, there was no reason not to relax the closure.

Analysts said Blair's tentative announcement represented a major policy shift for Israel.
Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said the possible easing of the blockade would mean "a shift of purpose of the Israeli sanctions from forcing a political change (in Hamas-ruled Gaza) to a more narrowly defined security purpose."

"It's a sign that Israel is seeking to be less estranged from the international community, which ultimately has been a guarantor of its security for the past 60 years," Alterman said.

In Paris, historian and Mideast expert Vincent Lemire warned that Blair's announcement must be viewed with a dose of skepticism until Israel actually proves it is relaxing the embargo. "There have been announcements before that had very limited practical applications," he said.

The outcry following last month's raid on the Gaza convoy illustrates that "the political burden of the (blockade) is heavier and heavier for Israel to carry," Lemire added.

President Barack Obama said last week that Gaza's situation is unsustainable and suggested that everything except weapons should be allowed in. The EU also called for an "immediate, sustained and unconditional" easing of restrictions that have left the territory's 1.5 million Palestinians mired in poverty.

EU foreign ministers described the blockade as "unacceptable and politically counterproductive" in a draft communique prepared for a summit meeting of the bloc's leaders on Thursday.

"Israel (must) to lift the blockade of Gaza so that humanitarian aid and normal commercial traffic can move into Gaza," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "We want to see the opening of the crossings into Gaza to benefit people trying to live ordinary lives," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "Making sure people can build homes, have businesses, rebuild schools and infrastructure, are critical to everyday life."

Blair, who briefed the EU foreign ministers on the situation, said the EU would also seek "a role" on the Rafah border crossing -- Egypt's most strategic crossing point into Gaza. But he did not call for the return of the bloc's monitoring mission at Rafah that operated sporadically from 2005 to 2007.

EU officials said there were indications Israel may also agree to open at least one border crossing to large-scale commercial traffic.

A diplomat who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks said that while no final decisions had been made, there were positive indications that Israel might be willing to open either the Karni or the Kerem Shalom border crossings.

The Karni and Kerem Shalom crossings have been open for humanitarian goods for the past few years.

Israeli security officials have said talks are now under way to replace the Israeli supervision of the border crossings with international monitors which would include the Palestinians and the Egyptians.

Diplomats in Luxembourg said the EU would also be involved, and would be bearing much of the operation's cost.

But another EU officials said the EU would hold off on formulating detailed plans on how to operate in the border crossings until Israel had confirmed the blockade would be lifted and that international staffers would play a significant role in monitoring the crossings.

The official, who was not authorized to speak to the media, also said it remained unclear how Hamas -- which rules Gaza -- would react to the arrangements and whether the monitors would be allowed to operate on both sides of the border.