By Avner Gidron, Senior Policy Adviser at Amnesty International
Israel's rejection of an international inquiry into its deadly raid on the Gaza-bound ship is deeply disappointing, if not surprising. Judging by precedent, Israel is unlikely to provide the effective, independent and impartial investigation required to ensure truth, justice and reparations for victims and their families. But the truth is the outcome of an inquiry is unnecessary to reach the conclusion that Israel must end its siege of Gaza now.
The blockade violates human rights and humanitarian law, and it is politically senseless. It is past time that the United States and Israel's other allies press for its immediate end.
For three years, the population of the Gaza Strip has been suffering the debilitating effects of Israel's blockade imposed when Israel decided to treat the area as a "hostile entity" after Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza. With the stated aim of preventing rocket fire by militants and pressuring Hamas, the blockade instead punishes the civilians in the Gaza Strip by restricting a vast range of goods and products that have no possible military use.
The firing of indiscriminate rockets into Israeli towns by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups (which, since 2001, has killed some 16 civilians in Israel) deserves unequivocal condemnation. But Israel's closure of Gaza goes well beyond its security needs, penning one and a half million Palestinians into a tiny strip of land and condemning hundreds of thousands to poverty and dependence. The sweeping scope of the blockade and statements by Israeli officials about its purpose make clear that this siege is being imposed as a form of collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza, a flagrant violation of Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Gazans are trapped. Hundreds have been unable to attend university or take up jobs abroad, let alone in other parts of the occupied Palestinian Territories. For the population of Gaza, nearby East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank may as well be on the other side of the world. Critically ill patients in need of medical care that is unavailable in local hospitals are frequently prevented from leaving Gaza or delayed until it is too late. Since 2007 almost all exports have been barred, with the derisory exception of a few truckloads of strawberries and cut flowers. What security concerns can explain the general prohibition on exporting flowers?
Israel regularly continues to bar entry of materials for the reconstruction of Gaza after Operation "Cast Lead," including spare parts for water works and other essential infrastructure. Delivery of food, fuel and other humanitarian goods remains subject to arbitrary restrictions - at various times food items such as pasta, biscuits and tomato paste have all been banned. The Kafkaesque absurdity of some decisions would be humorous if the consequences were not so serious.
In Washington, there appears to be a tentative acceptance of the need to put small amounts of pressure on Israel at last. The United States assented to a Security Council call for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent" investigation into the deaths. Secretary of State Clinton has spoken of the need for international participation in an inquiry.
Past experience suggests that the U.S. administration, faced with overwhelming Congressional opposition to any hint of criticism of the Netanyahu government's actions, may relapse back into automatic support mode.
U.S. policy has been myopic, in this regard. To take just one example: Richard Goldstone, one of the world's leading jurists, led a fact-finding mission on the "Cast Lead" offensive in Gaza that last year documented war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed by Israel and Hamas. The United States was one of just seven governments that voted against a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for credible domestic investigations into abuses committed by both sides, taking Goldstone's findings as a starting point.
Israel's allies have let this siege go on for far too long. Some states have colluded in the blockade, hoping that Israel would succeed in turning Gazans against Hamas. But if that is its purpose, the siege has been an abject failure. Hamas has consolidated power. Weapons as well as matches and coffee can enter through the tunnels.
The Israeli government either does not yet recognize the failure of this cruel policy or is unwilling to admit it. Secretary Clinton, meanwhile, has described the situation in Gaza as "unacceptable and unsustainable." True enough. But will the U.S. government follow through? The idea that putting pressure on Israel to respect international law is somehow "soft" on abuses and crimes committed by the Palestinian side is a dangerous canard. This fallacy must be confronted more robustly.
The United States has more leverage on Israel than the rest of the world put together. Now is the time to use it.