Today I had the privilege of attending a briefing at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC for leaders in the faith community regarding Israel's interception of six boats bound for Gaza with humanitarian supplies, an incident that turned deadly on one of the vessels. A high level officer at the embassy gave a statement for about 10 minutes before opening the floor for discussion among the approximately 25 guests present.
What I heard on today wasn't terribly different or much more informative than what I had learned by reading the Washington Post and listening to reports on National Public Radio, though it was helpful to hear the Israeli position articulated clearly both in a statement and in response to questions and comments sympathetic to different sides of this issue.
In short, Israel is in a state of armed conflict with a Hamas regime in Gaza that seeks Israel's destruction. Israel's blockade of Gaza is intended to weaken Hamas, particularly its ability to mount attacks on Israel. Daily over 100 truckloads of humanitarian supplies enter Gaza – food, medicine, etc. – and store shelves are generally well-stocked with daily necessities.
The blockade prohibits the import of all kinds of "dual use" products, such as concrete and other building supplies, that in the hands of civilians would contribute greatly to the economic development of Gaza. However, such materials could be used by the Hamas regime for the military purposes of constructing bunkers and other military facilities. I asked the embassy officer if Israel does or would allow the import of such "dual use" products if it had ways to deliver them to international relief or UN agencies working in Gaza, so that the Palestinians living in Gaza could grow their economy and opportunities. He cited the recent construction of a French hospital as one instance of building materials moving into Gaza, but lamented that Hamas has been known to forcibly seize materials intended for civilian use and put them toward a military purpose. Thus, Israel is generally reluctant to allow "dual use" materials into Gaza, since it feels it doesn't have an honest broker in the Hamas regime. Who gets hurt? The civilians, whose economy continues to spiral downward.
The officer repeated the position of Israel that it will sit at the negotiating table with Hamas as soon as Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist and drops its commitment to armed struggle against Israel. Until that point, Israel considers itself to be in a continued armed conflict with Hamas, and will continue its blockade to weaken the Hamas regime. He cited the near-daily instances of rockets being fired into Israel as one indication that this conflict is active, that Hamas is not a partner in peace, and that the blockade's cessation is dependent on Hamas ending hostilities.
Yet, it didn't take a meeting with a high level embassy official to understand this point of view. By reading news reports and editorial page columns, even someone who is very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people (as I am) can clearly see that Hamas is no partner in peace and that Israel has a right to defend itself. The flotilla was designed less to deliver aid than it was to draw attention to the blockade and force Israel's hand – and that it did. The loss of life in the interception of the flotilla was horrible, and Israel should rightly re-examine its tactics – not just the military intervention, but all the diplomatic efforts that preceded the interception – to learn if there were ways this loss of life could have been avoided. For seizing the boats Israel should not be condemned; for its poor execution of the interception, Israel rightly merits some criticism. Yet we should be clear that the group behind the flotilla has ties to terrorists and was on a political mission to discredit Israel and its legal, if nonetheless economically crippling, blockade.
In response to this crisis, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a statement expressing sadness and regret at the loss of life, and calling for the the lifting of the blockade of Gaza. The statement is disappointingly one-sided, failing to mention that Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to ongoing violence against Israel, and that the organizers of the flotilla had political motivations and terrorist ties. The situation in Israel and Gaza is horrible, but the answer doesn't lie in opening Gaza's borders to trade from Iran, Syria, and other enemies of Israel. Hamas has not demonstrated that it can be trusted.
Which gets us to the question about how all this ends. Israel says it will talk with Hamas once Hamas gives up its commitment to violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. But will Hamas ever agree to this? Regime change within Gaza seems unlikely. Hamas has such control over civil society in Gaza that there is little chance at this time for political opposition to mount a serious challenge to Hamas' authority. So unless Hamas has a change of heart – due to internal or external pressure – it seems that this standoff will continue, and the people of Gaza will continue to suffer.
The official denied that Israel has responsibility for the suffering of the people of Gaza – that's up to Hamas, he said. And to a large extent, he's right. Hamas could do much more to improve the quality of life of its residents, but Hamas refuses. Hamas would rather remain committed to an ideology than seek a better life for Gazans.
But on the other hand, the official's argument is insufficient. The "Pottery Barn Principle," made famous by Colin Powell, states that "if you broke it, you buy it." For better or worse, Israel as long-time occupier of Gaza and now blockade enforcer owns this situation and has to deal with it, no matter who is in power in Gaza. Does Israel have alternatives to its current policy? I'm not sure. But saying "it's up to the other guys to make the first step" might not be enough. While Israel waits for the other guys to make the first step, at its doorstep a failing society with lots of young, increasingly angry and poorly educated young men is descending into ever-increasing dysfunction.