There is new debate in and outside of Israel over the country's three-year old policy of blockading Gaza and limiting trade withthe rest of the world.
The debate is one of many consequences of Monday's deadly raid on an aid flotilla that was organized to try tobreak the blockade. Israel had asserted the blockade was the only way to keep Hamas, which controls Gaza, from smuggling in weapons that would be used to attack the Jewish state.
Amid increasing international condemnation of Israel, The New York Times reported Thursday that President Obama will press the Israeli government to come up with a new approach to Gaza. And the Israeli paper, Haaretz, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "willing to consider easing the naval blockade" and come up with "creative solutions for monitoring the goods that are allowed to enter" Gaza.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled cautioned that does not mean things will change anytime soon.
"We agree with the Americans that the status quo is unsustainable and therefore have expressed our willingness to explore together ways of addressing the issue while reconciling Israel's security needs and the Gazan humanitarian situation," Peled said.
Alternatives under consideration include mechanisms for screening goods coming into Gaza, short of a total blockade. He added, however, "I don't think there is another mechanism, by the way. It's not that we like it, there just doesn't seem to be a better alternative."
Nevertheless, Israeli, Palestinian and Western analysts have been pushing alternative approaches.
Lara Friedman, the director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, argues there are pragmatic options, short of a total blockade, to keep weapons out of Gaza. They include focusing on border crossings, where much has been done to improve monitoring procedures on goods coming in and out.
"Some people frame it as either you're a naive, foolish lefty, or you care about Israel's security, but that's so obviously a straw man. No one has ever argued for complete and unfettered access into Gaza for anyone or anything to cross," she said.
Friedman said that arguing the blockade keeps weapons out doesn't make any sense -- rocket attacks from Gaza actually increased after it began.
But Amos Guiora, a retired Israeli Naval lawyer, who dealt with legal issues of Israel's sea blockade and now teaches law at the University of Utah, said the blockade remains necessary as long as Hamas refuses to "come to terms with the existence of the state of Israel."
"I think whatever Israeli government is in place -- right or left -- they will maintain the blockade to prevent the introduction of war materials and terrorists to Gaza," Guiora said from his Jerusalem home. "What drives the blockade is the need to keep out bad things, bad people. If there was another way, the decision-makers would welcome it."
Guiora said any easing of the blockade would be done for political, not security, reasons. He does, however, think better intelligence is needed to avoid future incidents like Monday's attack.
"The interception didn't happen out of thin air. There was constant dialogue [between Israel and the organizers]. Israel asked them to please bring the aid material to [an Israeli port] to have it inspected and delivered. It was like a Greek tragedy, everyone knew what would happen in advance. Of course, no one expected this terrible result, but the organizers knew Israel would intercept the ship."
The organizers of the flotilla of aid ships have denied there was ever any intention of attacking the Israelis, but they have said they were prepared for the possibility Israel might try to board the ship, which Israel had done to previous vessels.
Israelis overwhelmingly support the blockade, said Guiora. Although, since the attack, the Israeli press has been full of criticism. And some analysts and columnists have begunposing alternatives to the blockade.
In a column published Wednesday, Aluf Benn, a diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, argued Israel should give up trying to control Gaza and instead completely disengage by "abandoning all responsibility for Gaza residents and their welfare." He proposed sealing the Israel-Gaza border, and said "Gaza would have to obtain supplies and medical services via the Egyptian border or by sea."
"Israel would also make it clear that it will exercise its right to self-defense by inspecting suspicious cargo on the high seas in order to thwart arms smuggling. ...And if we are shot at from Gaza, we will shoot back -- with intent to cause harm," he wrote.
Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the PLO, said Benn's argument missed the point that Israel created this problem in Gaza to begin with and continues to control Gaza -- despite their withdrawal of settlers in 2005. So, they can't wash their hands of responsibility, she said.
"They do have an obligation to make sure everything the Palestinians need to get in, gets in. Israel has obligations under international law," she said. And, regardless, "what happens in Gaza has repercussions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem. The Palestinians are one people."
Buttu, who now resides in Ramallah on the West Bank, lived in Gaza in 2005 and 2006 and said people don't realize how much Israeli control remains there.
Israeli warplanes still fly overhead, and it can take hours to move through Israeli security checkpoints at the border.
Questions over bans on goods
Most controversial, and difficult to explain, is the ban on items unrelated to weapons and military equipment, said Buttu.
"When I was there, there were weeks when we didn't get berry products, or only expired berry products," she said. "I lived through one period where there was no bread because the Israelis cut off flour. I had trouble finding dairy -- cheese and certain kinds of milk and yogurt. It was all these little things."
According to the BBC, items that are currently banned from being brought into Gaza include: "jam, chocolate, wood for furniture, fruit juice, textiles, and plastic toys."
Israeli officials acknowledge banned items go beyond weapons and war material. They say the purpose of allowing humanitarian food and medical supplies into Gaza is simply that -- humanitarian. The purpose is to deny them luxuries.
But Robert Malley, the Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group, and a former advisor to President Clinton on Arab-Israeli affairs, argues that view is short-sighted and creates more, not less, support for Hamas.
"Hamas now has a monopoly and economic transactions and providing goods," which has only strengthened them, he said.
Malley argued that by lifting the blockade and opening Gaza, you are actually strengthening other elements of the society. "There's no doubt Hamas will take credit if the situation improves in Gaza, but in the long term, if the goal is loosening Hamas' monopoly, isolating Gaza is not the way to do that. If you talk to the business community in Gaza -- many of them have no sympathy for Hamas -- but they say, 'You're killing us.' The only people who now says who gets what and when and where is Hamas."
Both Buttu and Malley believe lifting the blockade is the best way to solve Israel's concerns about security.
"There's a discourse that somehow the Palestinians just have a violence gene," Buttu said. "But of course that's not true. There is a link between the occupation and rockets. The occupation is making the situation worse. The only thing that can solve it is a comprehensive agreement."
Malley said that Hamas leaders told him last week in Damascus they'd be willing to accept monitoring mechanisms for goods entering Gaza, if it meant goods could flow freely. Malley suggested lifting the blockade and letting ships be inspected at Gaza ports by U.N. personnel.
Guiora, the retired Israeli naval official, said he doesn't think Israel would go for that. Instead, perhaps, there could be an easing of the strict enforcement. "Maybe you could have something like what you have in the West Bank with the checkpoints there. Occasionally decisions are made to limit the checkpoints and facilitate easier transport of goods and people. Maybe the same principle can be applied to the blockade. Maybe."
But Guiora said checking ships, unlike cars, can be extremely difficult logistically. "There's a constant struggle between balancing the need for meeting international obligations and the need to protect Israeli citizens."