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What’s the Blockade For?

The Israeli government has decided to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, earning it kudos from the United Nations and contempt from Hamas, which dismisses it as a public-relations stunt. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accuses Israel of manipulating public opinion by allowing more goods in, but there has been no shortage of misleading information from his side already.

Preventing Hamas from importing missiles and other sophisticated weaponry from Syria and Iran is the blockade’s primary function. There’s a secondary goal, as well, and it’s this one that has drawn the most criticism from the United Nations and Western activists. Israeli blockade-enforcement authorities have not only blocked construction materials such as cement, they’ve also been prohibiting seemingly random items like coriander, nutmeg, and musical instruments, while allowing in cinnamon, frozen meat, and medical supplies.

Critics describe the Israeli blockade as “collective punishment” against Gaza’s entire population, and it does look that way when perusing the list of prohibited items, but the items on that list aren’t outright banned. Aid organizations can import all the cement and coriander they want for reconstruction and food distribution. The restrictions only apply to private-sector importers, and even then, only “luxury” items and construction materials that can be used for military purposes are blocked.

“Humanitarian products are delivered on a daily bases to the Strip,” said the spokesman for COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. “Food products are delivered almost without restriction—with the exception of luxury goods, which the average Gazan cannot afford, but which are purchased by the wealthy and corrupt leaders of Hamas.”

“Why would we want to transfer items that only Hamas members could afford?” said an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson I contacted. “International aid organizations basically get to bring in whatever they want. So if there are certain luxury food items that we wouldn’t transfer to the private sector in Gaza, the aid organizations will get them. The same applies for construction materials, which we won’t let in unless it is going to aid organizations, since we are able to know where they end up (for building houses rather than bunkers, kassams, etc.) with a higher likelihood than if they were sent in privately.”

As most Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on aid organizations for their basic needs, they are not adversely affected by the blockade. So easing the blockade won’t help much, if it will help them at all.