New York Times:
Israel Signals New Flexibility on Gaza Shipments
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — While still insisting that its blockade of Gaza is essential to its security, the Israeli government is now shifting its position, “exploring new ways” of allowing goods to reach the coastal enclave, an Israeli official said Thursday.
Describing the latest thinking within the government on the condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly, the official said Israel was determined to have every ship heading to Gaza inspected to prevent the smuggling of rockets and other weapons. But at the same time, he said, the government wanted to facilitate the entry of civilian goods.
The government’s new flexibility follows a week of unrelenting international outrage over Israel’s commando raid on a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists, which left nine dead, and reports that senior officials in the Obama administration were calling for a “new approach” in Gaza and had concluded that the blockade was untenable.
President Obama added to the pressure on Israel in an interview with Larry King that was broadcast Thursday night. While declining to condemn the raid, he said, “What’s important right now is that we break out of the current impasse, use this tragedy as an opportunity so that we figure out how we meet Israel’s security concerns, but at the same time start opening up opportunity for Palestinians.”
Israel’s Channel 2 television news reported on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had proposed to Tony Blair, the international envoy of the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers, that an international naval force inspect future aid ships bound for Gaza.
Mr. Netanyahu met with Mr. Blair on Thursday, but there was no immediate confirmation from Mr. Netanyahu’s office or from Mr. Blair’s that such a proposal had been discussed.
Since the raid on Monday, Israeli officials have staunchly defended the blockade of Gaza, saying it is needed to prevent Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules the territory, from receiving shipments of rockets, missiles and other arms. Mr. Netanyahu said Thursday that giving ships unfettered access to the enclave was the equivalent of having “an Iranian port in Gaza.”
Earlier on Thursday, a senior Israeli security official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Israel had shown flexibility “all the time” regarding supplies allowed through the land crossings.
But he reiterated the longstanding Israeli position that if Hamas wants real change, “they can release Gilad Shalit,” the Israeli soldier captured in a raid and taken to Gaza in 2006, as well as recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence.
Gaza has been under an Israeli-led blockade since Hamas took full control of the territory in 2007. Israel, the United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
The diplomatic developments were accompanied by reports on Thursday that one of the nine people killed in the raid on the flotilla this week was a 19-year-old United States citizen of Turkish descent who had lived most of his life in Turkey, officials in Turkey and Washington said.
Hundreds of activists, many of them Turks, were flown to Turkey overnight. They had been detained when the Israeli Navy towed the ships to shore on Monday. Israel said it had released all the detainees without pressing charges, part of an effort to prevent further diplomatic damage.
But as processions of coffins bearing some of the dead wound through a devout neighborhood of Istanbul on Thursday, accompanied by thousands of Turkish mourners, public anger in Turkey seemed undiminished.
A new potential confrontation seemed to be avoided Thursday with word that another ship bound for Gaza with pro-Palestinian activists was being delayed. The 1,200-ton cargo ship, named the Rachel Corrie for an American protester who was crushed by an Israeli Army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, was waiting “somewhere in the Mediterranean,” according to Hedy Epstein, 85, a Holocaust survivor and prominent member of the Free Gaza Movement, one of the main organizers of the last flotilla.
Although the group was keeping the whereabouts of the Rachel Corrie vague, Ms. Epstein, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, said it would not be approaching Gaza this weekend, as originally expected. CNN reported Thursday that the voyage was being delayed while the ship was fitted with greater video and satellite transmission capabilities.
Israel said Thursday that seven activists remained in Israeli hospitals, not yet well enough to travel. The Australian wife of one of the wounded, also an Australian citizen, had asked to stay behind.
The deaths occurred during a violent confrontation on a Turkish-flagged liner carrying 600 passengers. After it seized the ships, Israel said it would deliver the goods that the activists had been trying to take to Gaza.
But the Hamas authorities were not allowing supplies from the ships to enter Gaza on Thursday, said Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli authority responsible for the crossings. About 30 truckloads had been unloaded from the ships, he said.
Ahmed al-Kurd, the minister of social affairs in the Hamas government, said that first, “Israel has to release all hostages,” referring to the flotilla activists.
In addition, Mr. Kurd said that it was up to Turkey to decide on “the mechanism to distribute or to handle the aid,” whether through international or Turkish organizations, and that the aid must arrive complete.