Gaza has been blockaded by both Israel and Egypt (hmm, haven’t seen many Egyptian flags burning over the past week or two...) since around June 2007 or so, as a direct result of the 2006 election victory by the terrorist group Hamas and the subsequent takeover of Gaza by Hamas forces in March 2007. Since the blockade, Israel has permitted only limited humanitarian aid supplies into Gaza – enough, the Israeli authorities say, to stave off malnutrition and hunger, but not enough, critics point out, to allow any form of self sufficiency or comfort sneak in. Israel’s navy patrols the coast to intercept and redirect any shipping en route to Gaza, while Egypt’s land forces are constructing an underground steel barrier on its side of the border in an attempt to seal off the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle food, medicine, munitions, and weapons into the territory. While Israel’s motives for the blockade are primarily to deny sufficient resources to Hamas to allow it to continue its relentless rocket attacks on Israeli territory, Egypt’s motivation is to show solidarity with the legitimate Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Hamas is using the blockade to shore up hatred of Israel and to increase its own strength. In February 2000 Hamas “police” confiscated a large number of food parcels and blankets from the UN Relief mission, and confiscated more than 200 tonnes of food in another incident several days later. It was only a threat by the UN to suspend all its relief work in Gaza which forced Hamas to back down and return the stolen items, which observers believe would have been used as largesse to reward loyal Hamas followers in the blockaded territory.
On 31 May 2010 the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) intercepted a convoy of six ships heading for Gaza. Five of the six ships in the so-called “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” seem to have complied with Israeli instructions not to break the blockade, although they, like the sixth vessel (the MV Mavi Marmara) had earlier ignored a request to dock at Israel’s port of Ashdod, from where the approved aid items would be delivered to Gaza. The MV Mavi Marmara, the main ship in the convoy, seemed intent to break the blockade, and Israeli commandos moved to enforce the blockade by boarding the ship. Despite some footage of the events being released by the IDF (critics point out that much of the footage lacks context), we are unsure as to what exactly happened next, but what cannot be denied as that there was a struggle aboard the ship as the “peaceful” protestors sought to prevent the Israeli forces from taking control of the vessel, and 9 people aboard the ship were shot and killed, with 60 others, and 10 IDF members, being injured.
When news of the convoy’s imminent departure from Cyprus reached the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh earlier in the week, he claimed that "if the ships reach Gaza, it's a victory for Gaza... If they are intercepted and terrorised by the Zionists, it will be a victory for Gaza, too, and they will move again in new ships to break the siege of Gaza." Interestingly enough, when the ships were diverted and offloaded at Ashdod, Hamas refused to accept any of the aid aboard the vessels – aid which, according to some reports, was composed of food past its use-by date.
As a direct result of the international reception to this event, Egypt relaxed the blockade on its end of the border; despite the apparent inspections which are going on at the Rafah border crossing, there is little doubt that this has allowed Hamas to significantly rearm itself. It also means, however, that there is no further need for “humanitarian” organisations to attempt to break the blockade, as, if they truly wanted to send aid into Gaza, they can do so from both Israel and Egypt, while there is nothing to prevent people in Gaza getting what they need from Egypt (provided they can get the requisite travel documents from their own “government”, which is problematic as Hamas will only let certain people travel outside of its demesne).
Critics of the blockade suggest that the blockade does not distinguish between civilians and military opponents (which of course it cannot because Hamas, being a paramilitary terror group, uses civilians to conduct its actions). A 1977 amendment to the Geneva Convention specifically prohibits the use of any collective measures which do not distinguish between military targets and innocent civilians. While Israel has not signed these protocols, the international community expects it to uphold them; Hamas, as a terrorist organisation administering an internationally unrecognised statelet, has also not signed the protocols and is unable to do so even if it were willing.
The September 2009 Goldstone Report into Gaza and the blockade by the UN suggested that it was a crime against humanity and recommended that the matter be referred to the International Court of Justice by March 2010 if the situation had not improved by then. Israel condemned the report as being biased and poorly researched, and stands by its claim today that the situation, while not pleasant, is certainly not fatal – at least not for those people living in Gaza, anyway.