Richmond World Affairs Council

The Gaza Flotilla and Gilad Shilit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting with President Obama this week to discuss the sanctions on Iran, the peace process, and the Gaza blockade. This meeting will be a stark contrast from their most recent one in which relations between the two leaders were reported to be tense and no photos were taken. This is an opportunity for both sides to express their positions and to show the international community that their diplomatic relationship is still intact despite policy disagreements.

After last month’s flotilla incident and the harsh criticism that Israel received in the aftermath, Israel has put forth a concerted effort to ease the Gaza blockade. It has allowed in previously blacklisted items, such as mattresses and school materials. This reduction in prohibited items was a reaction to worldwide criticism of the blockade and its effect on the civilian population in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military has also initiated an investigation into the violence that occurred on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara. The investigation panel includes two international figures from Ireland and Canada; this is an attempt to appease the calls for an international and independent investigation which Netanyahu has vetoed. After the results of the Goldstone Report, it is not surprising that the Israeli government is reluctant to allow an international investigation.

Now that Israel has made these concessions, it is up to the Palestinian leaders to reciprocate. One way to demonstrate this reciprocation is for Mahmud Abbas and the Arab countries to pressure Hamas into negotiating a deal with Israel for the release of Gilad Shilit. The kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shilit is one of the top domestic issues in Israel today. For four years, Shilit has been in the hands of the terrorist organization Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It was shortly after his kidnapping that the Gaza blockade was enacted. If the group is not willing to release Gilad Shilit, it must allow the Red Cross access to him. This would give the Israeli public and government proof of life and act as a good faith gesture.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel is willing to release up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Gilad Shilit (Reuters). A prisoner exchange seems like the only realistic solution for getting Shilit back. This would be a real triumph for Netanyahu who is facing domestic criticism over building freezes, among other things, in the West Bank. Adding to the pressure is the fact that Shilit’s parents are in the middle of a march from their home in the north of Israel to Jerusalem. This march is an effort to call attention to the fate of their son and remind the Israeli government that public opinion is on their side. It has also demonstrated the ineffectiveness of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments to move forward with the peace process

Although the events of the Gaza flotilla raid were mired in violence and suspicion, the political outcome may have a more positive effect. The easing of the Gaza blockade was a necessity and Israel needed to show the international community that it was willing to cooperate. The flotilla raid prompted a much needed modification in Israeli policy and we have not seen the last of its repercussions. This step will decrease the criticism Israel receives from humanitarian organizations and potentially move them one step closer to direct talks with the Palestinians. President Obama has called for a transition to direct talks before September which is when the building freeze is set to expire. If a prisoner exchange could also be achieved by this date, it seems that a genuine attempt for direct talks could be realized.

~ Alissa Aronovici