Easing the Gaza blockade is a step forward

Israel is moving in the right direction by easing the punishing economic blockade of the Gaza Strip that it imposed when the radical Islamic movement Hamas seized control of the enclave in June 2007 and captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. This will help alleviate the misery of 1.5 million Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom Israel prohibits from leaving the enclosed territory. It is progress, but will not by itself end what the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States jointly termed the “unsustainable, unacceptable” humanitarian and human rights situation in Gaza.

The Israeli government has a right to defend its citizens against attacks from Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, and to expect the international community, including neighboring Egypt, to help prevent weapons trafficking to Hamas. But Israel was wrong to try to weaken Hamas with a general blockade, controlling the flow of food and fuel to civilians and banning delivery of building supplies, even after destroying whole neighborhoods during the 2008 war there.

Israel is relaxing the siege in the face of widespread international opprobrium for killing nine Turkish activists during a May 31 raid on ships trying to break through with aid. Under the new rules, instead of maintaining a list of a few goods that will be allowed into the strip, Israel will keep a list of goods that are forbidden, including weapons and materials that can be used to make them, although it’s not clear what that means for dual-use items that could be used for peaceful or military purposes. The White House, in turn, announced that President Obama is rescheduling a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that was canceled after the deadly assault.

These are hopeful signs, but they must be followed by concrete actions on the ground, as well as by further measures to allow freedom of movement for the people of Gaza and exports from the economically ravaged zone. Hamas should follow suit by releasing Shalit, now 24, who has been held virtually incommunicado since being captured four years ago this week.

Unfortunately, history suggests that easing the Gaza blockade will provide only short-term relief until the next crisis or conflagration. Each step forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be accompanied by a step back, as was the case Monday when a Jerusalem planning panel approved a proposal to raze 22 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem for an Israeli tourist center. The two sides and their international interlocutors must get back to the negotiating table and keep their eyes on the overarching issues of Palestinian statehood and security for Israel. Only then can the people of Gaza, the rest of the Palestinian territories and Israel truly hope to be free.