For years Swiss diplomats have been working to find ways of easing the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and now those efforts could begin to bear fruit.
On Thursday the Israeli security cabinet announced it planned to allow civilian goods to enter the Strip under international control while maintaining security measures to prevent arms and war materials from slipping in.
Ambassador Jean-Daniel Ruch, special Swiss envoy to the Middle East, says Switzerland’s approach has been humanitarian while looking for ways to foster the economy in the troubled territory.
“Since the beginning of the Gaza blockade, we have been asking ourselves how to ensure the supply of its inhabitants and economy,” he said.
Specifically, Swiss authorities have contributed their expertise to a monitoring system to track the flow of goods and people into Gaza. It is a system that the Spanish presidency of the European Union brought up again after Israel announced its willingness to be more flexible in allowing goods into Gaza.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos said that if the EU had its way there would be “a European presence at crossing points into Gaza to facilitate the arrival of all kinds of goods and individuals“ while offering Israel a guarantee of “due vigilance and control to ensure that there is no arms smuggling or anything which could be detrimental to the security of the region”.
The issue came to a head again following the bloody Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian ship in May that left nine people dead.
Simply put, the goal for Swiss diplomacy in the Middle East has been to be useful.
That is modest if one thinks of the country’s actions in support of the Geneva Accords but realistic when considering the number of players directly involved in the ongoing between Israelis and Palestinians.
Ruch stresses the humanitarian dimension of the Swiss approach, which also took a look at Israeli responsibilities.
"Our thinking was first spelled out in 2007 with a legal analysis of Israel's obligations as an occupying power in Gaza," he said.
Following the massive Israeli military operation in Gaza in December 2008, Swiss diplomats faced a new humanitarian disaster with more than 1,000 people killed, mostly Palestinians, and more than a thousand buildings damaged or destroyed.
The blockade has prevented building materials from coming in, so diplomats launched another approach, Ruch said.
"To address the deadlock in the reconstruction of Gaza, we suggested last year the establishment of an independent mechanism for managing the reconstruction in Gaza,” he said.
On the ground, however, the embargo has strangled the Gaza Strip. Switzerland, meanwhile, was entrusted with an mission by the United Nations.
"When in November 2009 we received a mandate by the UN General Assembly to convene a conference on the implementation of the Geneva Conventions in the Occupied Territories, it became apparent to us that the priority of humanitarian emergency was Gaza," said Ruch.
The "freedom flotilla" and its bloody seizure by Israeli commandos abruptly changed the diplomatic deal and incidentally underlines the relevance of the Swiss approach.
The Swiss foreign ministry is concentrating on ways of establishing predictable, sustainable access to Gaza, allowing the population and its economy to grow, while ensuring Israel's security.
"The results of our study were presented in the past 15 days to our various partners, both in Washington and Brussels. We are in constant contact with them to refine this model,” Ruch said.
It remains to be seen whether Israel’s decision to ease the Gaza blockade will bring down the intense diplomatic pressure on the Netanyahu government, as the ball is now in the court of the sponsors of the peace process such as the UN, EU, the United States and Russia.
"Every time that diplomatic pressure becomes too strong, Israel loses some ballast on a humanitarian level to make no concessions from a political point of view," said Yves Besson, a former Swiss diplomat and close observer of the Middle East.
In fact, the EU has welcomed Israel's decision, saying it was a "step in the right direction." The US also welcomed the news.
"Instead of having a list of allowed goods, there will conversely be a list of banned ones. Two or three goods will be banned and all the rest will be able to enter easily," Moratinos said.
But Moratinos’s French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, added an asterisk to the news and deemed the Israeli gesture inadequate. That is a view shared by the European Parliament, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
"President Mahmoud Abbas demands the complete lifting of the siege of Gaza, and that's what he asked President Barack Obama and the European Union to call for,” said Palestinian chief negotiator Saëb Erekat.
But the Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper a few days ago reported that Mahmoud Abbas had confirmed to Obama and the Europeans that he did not want a complete lifting of the Israeli blockade. The reason was that he wanted to avoid strengthening Hamas fundamentalists.
Frédéric Burnand in Geneva, swissinfo.ch (Translated from French by Tim Neville)
Security Cabinet statement
The Security Cabinet has conducted an extensive discussion regarding adjustments in Israel’s Gaza policy.
It was agreed to:
- Liberalise the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza.
- Expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision.
- Continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel.
The Cabinet will decide in the coming days on additional steps to implement this policy.
Israel expects the international community to work toward the immediate release of Gilad Shalit (an Israeli soldier with French citizenship captured in 2006 by Palestinian militants).