News / Middle East

US Consults Allies About Gaza Blockade

The United States is consulting with its allies over proposals to lift the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip following the raid by commandoes on an aid flotilla that led to the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian activists from Turkey. U.S. President Barack Obama says the current situation is inherently unstable and the humanitarian condition in Gaza needs to substantially improve.

Shortly after the Israeli commando raid protesters throughout Europe and the Middle East took to the streets to demand the end of the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

While the U.S. has not joined international calls to condemn Israel, American diplomats are talking with partners in the region and Europe to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

During a recent meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas President Obama called the current situation unsustainable.

"It seems to me that we should be able to take what has been a tragedy and turn it into an opportunity to create a situation where lives in Gaza are actually directly improved," he said.

Israel closed the border with Gaza after Hamas seized power in the territory in 2007. Israel wants to keep militants from obtaining weapons such as rockets that have been fired on civilians inside the Jewish state.

The Israeli raid on the aid flotilla sparked an outcry and put intense international attention on the situation in Gaza, a narrow coastal strip with 1.5 million Palestinians.

"The international consensus about maintaining this closure of Gaza has broken down badly and it is no longer sustainable," said Michele Dunn, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Some Middle East analysts say it is no secret that the Gaza blockade has not significantly weakened Hamas, which Israel and the United States say is an Iranian-backed terrorist organization.

During the flotilla raid eight of those killed were Turks and one was a Turkish-American.

The incident severely strained the bond between Turkey and Israel, which until recently had enjoyed relatively warm relations.

Nathan Brown, a professor and scholar on Arab politics at George Washington University, says ending the blockade in Gaza is now more difficult.

"So if you are going to end it, you end it on your terms and your time or you wait until there is a crisis," said Brown. "Right now it is a propaganda victory for Hamas. Turkish public opinion is now directly engaged. It is a far messier situation."

Israel had hoped that negotiations on what Palestinians call the siege of Gaza would result in the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Gaza-based militants in a cross-border raid into Israel in 2006.

Middle East analysts say the international community will now need to negotiate an agreement to ease the blockade of Gaza.

"As long as Gilad Shalit is there it is going to be very difficult for any Israeli government to suddenly say ok, we are going to change our policy. So we have to come up with some kind of a global deal," said Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University.

Analysts say there is no internationally recognized authority at the border of Gaza and whatever steps are taken to provide security will have to involve the Palestinian Authority reconciling or at least cooperating with Hamas.

"It would really be a mistake, and I am sure the United States would not go in this direction, to give Hamas that authority on its own," said Michele Dunn of Carnegie.

The attack on the aid flotilla came as American-mediated indirect talks between the Israelis and Palestinians are getting underway.

The talks are a top foreign policy priority for President Obama.

"In the long run the only real way to solve this problem is to make sure that we've got a Palestinian state side by side with an Israel that is secure," said Mr. Obama. "And so we're going to be dealing with these short-term problems, but we also have to keep our eye on the horizon and recognize that it's that long-term issue that has to be focused on."

The United States has expressed sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, but insists any solution to the blockade must also meet Israel's security needs.

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