WASHINGTON — The Obama administration considers Israel’s blockade of Gaza to be untenable and plans to press for another approach to ensure Israel’s security while allowing more supplies into the impoverished Palestinian area, senior American officials said Wednesday.
The officials say that Israel’s deadly attack on a flotilla trying to break the siege and the resulting international condemnation create a fresh opportunity to push for increased engagement with the Palestinian Authority and a less harsh policy toward Gaza.
“There is no question that we need a new approach to Gaza,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy shift is still in the early stages. He was reflecting a broadly held view in the upper reaches of the administration.
Israel would insist that any approach take into account three factors: Israel’s security; the need to prevent any benefit to Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza; and the four-year-old captivity of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit.
Since the botched raid that killed nine activists on Monday, the Israeli government has said that the blockade was necessary to protect Israel against the infiltration into Gaza of weapons and fighters sponsored by Iran.
If there were no blockade in place, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ’75 said on Israeli television on Wednesday evening, it would mean “an Iranian port in Gaza.” He added, “Israel will continue to maintain its right to defend itself.”
But the American officials said they believed that even Netanyahu understood that a new approach was needed.
Yet Netanyahu has resisted American pressure in the past. The Obama administration initially demanded a complete freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank but had to accept a 10-month partial freeze. Pressure on Israel also carries domestic political risks for Obama, given the passion of its supporters in the United States.
Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza five years ago and built the makings of an international border. But after Hamas, which rejects Israel’s existence, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006, Israel cut back on the amount of goods permitted into Gaza. When Shalit was seized in a cross-border raid in June of that year, commerce was further reduced.
A year later, Hamas drove the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority entirely out of Gaza in four days of street battles, leading Israel to cut off all shipments in and out except basic food, humanitarian aid and urgent medical supplies.
Hamas declines to recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence or accept previous accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The diplomatic group known as the Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, has said that until Hamas meets those requirements it will not deal with it.