Exclusive: Foreign occupation by remote control

U.S. President Barack Obama called this week for a "new conceptual framework" for replacing Israel’s 3-year-old blockade on the Gaza Strip, setting the stage for a European plan to establish a new international transit authority responsible for monitoring the movement of food, people, and construction materials entering and leaving the Palestinian territory, according to confidential ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama called this week for a "new conceptual framework" for replacing Israel's 3-year-old blockade on the Gaza Strip, setting the stage for a European plan to establish a new international transit authority responsible for monitoring the movement of food, people, and construction materials entering and leaving the Palestinian territory, according to confidential documents reviewed by Turtle Bay.

Britain and Switzerland have each circulated confidential plans that call for a high-tech monitoring system that would place foreign customs officers at Gaza's border crossings while allowing Israel and Egypt to track their work through a system of remote cameras, Global Positioning Systems, and inspections of sensitive building materials with a potential military application. The customs inspections system resembles a remote monitoring system used to monitor Iraq's weapons program and would be designed to bolster Israeli confidence that humanitarian goods are not being diverted to military uses.

"The international community is united in its conviction that the current blockade in Gaza is unacceptable and counterproductive," according to the British proposal. "It hurts the people of Gaza, holds their future hostage and undermines work to drive reconstruction, development and economic empowerment. At the same time the blockade empowers Hamas through the tunnel economy and damages Israeli's long term security through its corrosive impact on a generation of young Palestinians."

U.S. President Barack Obama called this week for a "new conceptual framework" for replacing Israel’s 3-year-old blockade on the Gaza Strip, setting the stage for a European plan to establish a new international transit authority responsible for monitoring the movement of food, people, and construction materials entering and leaving the Palestinian territory, according to confidential documents reviewed by Turtle Bay.

Britain and Switzerland have each circulated confidential plans that call for a high-tech monitoring system that would place foreign customs officers at Gaza’s border crossings while allowing Israel and Egypt to track their work through a system of remote cameras, Global Positioning Systems, and inspections of sensitive building materials with a potential military application. The customs inspections system resembles a remote monitoring system used to monitor Iraq’s weapons program and would be designed to bolster Israeli confidence that humanitarian goods are not being diverted to military uses.

"The international community is united in its conviction that the current blockade in Gaza is unacceptable and counterproductive," according to the British proposal. "It hurts the people of Gaza, holds their future hostage and undermines work to drive reconstruction, development and economic empowerment. At the same time the blockade empowers Hamas through the tunnel economy and damages Israeli’s long term security through its corrosive impact on a generation of young Palestinians."

The plan comes at a time when American officials have voiced increasing unease over the humanitarian plight of Palestinians, and have called for an easing of the blockade. On Wednesday, President Obama, after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called for the establishment of a new blockade that would narrowly target weapons "rather than focusing in a blanket way on stopping everything and then, in a piecemeal way, allowing things into Gaza." Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "The situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable."

The two European proposals had been developed before Israeli commandos raided an aid flotilla headed for Gaza on May 31, killing nine people. But U.N. officials and European diplomats believe that the political fallout of the Israeli raid has made the United States and Israel more amenable to an alteration of the blockade.

Diplomats at the U.N. said that the British and Swiss proposals were the subject of  teleconference talks Monday by envoys of the Quartet on the Middle East, the contact group comprised of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. Officials declined to comment on the proposals, but the U.N. issued a readout after the talks saying the diplomats discussed "the urgent need for a fundamentally different strategy in Gaza.They agreed to continue their intensive consultations in order to make recommendations to their principals as soon as possible."

So far, neither Israel nor the United States has indicated whether they would support the plans. One official familiar with the discussions said that Israel has been seeking to trade greater access to the Gazans in exchange for an agreement by the U.N. and other key powers to rescind their demands for an international investigation into the flotilla raid. Israel has also insisted that Hamas first allow the U.N. or the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier who was abducted by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid four years ago, before it offers any concessions on the blockade. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel should not ease the blockade before the Red Cross is given access to Shalit.

The British and Swiss proposals both insist that their proposed inspections systems will address Israel’s security concerns. They hope that an easing of the blockade will lead to massive foreign reconstruction projects in Gaza. The United States has already pledged $400 million to fund such projects in Gaza.

"We need to move from an incremental approach to a package than can deliver a transformative" boost to the Gazan economy, according to the British delegation’s memo.  "This is the moment for the international community to act. There is broad agreement on the package that is required. What is vital now is a clear and united signal form the international community on the measures now urgently needed."

Both the British and Swiss proposals envision a central role for the Quartet in overseeing the new monitoring system. And they believe it will require the consents of key players, including Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Turkey, and presumably Hamas.

But the British and Swiss approaches differ in key respects. Britain calls for reopening land and sea crossings, starting with the port at Ashdod and the Karni border crossing, in an effort to restore the flow of vital humanitarian goods and reconstructions materials, and to help "kickstart" the territory’s economic development. It proposes the elimination of an Israeli list of 81 "allowed goods," which "is far too restrictive and impedes a return to normal life."

It calls for reviving a European customs monitoring system, the European Border Assistance Mission, that was suspended in 2008, and imposing a "robust monitoring system to ensure that vital building materials — like cement and pipes — are used for rebuilding Gaza."

"The way to protect security concerns is through robust end-user monitoring," the British paper states. "There is an important role for the international community here, which we stand ready to play."

The Swiss proposal details a highly detailed plan for a politically neutral "transit authority" headed by an international civil servant who would report to the Quartet. The director of the authority would oversee an elaborate high-tech customs bureaucracy with cameras at major crossing points, allowing key players, including Israeli and Egyptian authorities, to remotely monitor what goods are coming in and out of the country. GPS sensors with a direct satellite transmission would be installed on particularly sensitive items so that the key powers could determine whether they were being diverted from their declared use.

"The transit authority would provide an online computer connection to the stakeholders; this will ensure the stakeholders are able to monitor the status of projects in Gaza on a daily basis," the Swiss paper noted. "With near real-time updates, stakeholders would be able to identify and tracks consignments in Gaza and be immediately alerted when a consignment drifts away from the assigned routes."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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