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Until the flotilla fiasco, the blockade of Gaza was not a matter of great concern to the Israeli public. And Thursday's decision by Israel's government to loosen its grip on the flow of goods into the territory — vague on specifics and heavy on conspicuous intent — was aimed squarely at a world watching from beyond missile range. "Look, I come from a kibbutz that's very close to Gaza," says Ran, a 40-year-old in Tel Aviv. "I go there to visit, and it's not nice."
The agricultural collective he comes from, called Nirim, grows organic peanuts and sweet potatoes in fields that run right up to the barrier that encloses 1.5 million Palestinians within Gaza. From the northern tip of the enclosure, an area of trash-strewn lots, militants scramble across to launch homemade rockets, then scramble off before Israeli artillery homes in on the launch coordinates. The rockets do not travel far, but they can reach Nirim. In March, shrapnel killed a Thai man working in a field there.
(See how Israel has eased but not ended its Gaza blockade.)
The problem, from Ran's perspective, is not that Israel's grip on Gaza is too tight. The problem is the opposite. "The country doesn't do enough," he says, then shrugs. "But you do what you can."
In a small country united by, among other things, an abiding sense of vulnerability, the missile attacks are synonymous with "Gaza." And though they have grown less frequent since Israel invaded the coastal strip in December 2008, what remains foremost in the popular imagination are periods when they seemed incessant. Gallingly, rocket attacks surged after Israel pulled its settlers and soldiers out of the coastal strip five years ago.
(See pictures of Israeli commandos storming Turkish ships.)
Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political consultant who works largely with the Israeli left, says that preoccupation with security, if not punishment, trumps concerns about hardship inside Gaza. "The pragmatic center, they don't see it," Scheindlin says, referring to the swing bloc that carries elections. "The narrative is, 'We left Gaza and got a rain of Qassam rockets. We gave them everything they wanted and we got a rain of Qassam rockets and a Hamas takeover.' I hear it over and over again in focus groups."
That perspective drives Israel's internal politics, and accounts for the defiant tone of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pushback in the face of the global outrage that greeted the botched commando raid on the Mavi Marama, which left nine activists dead. "Going to the tom-tom of the tribe: 'The whole world's against us,'" former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg said of the prime minister's remarks.
But a senior government official, speaking privately in advance of Thursday's cabinet decision on the blockade, acknowledged the core problem was Israel's policy. While the effort to keep arms out of Gaza was easy to justify, the official told TIME, Israel clearly miscalculated when it tried to squeeze Hamas by making life even more miserable for ordinary people there by barring the importation of things like spices and toys. Thursday's announcement implicitly acknowledged as much by omitting the specifics ("nutmeg," "coriander") that critics in the past have waved like flags.
"The whole idea of expanding the closure, the blockade, above and over strict military things was a mistake," says the senior official. "It helped give the impression they are hurting economically so everybody wants to help them. They don't want to help them with weapons, they want to help with drugs, with medicines, with food. Which may not be in shortage, but a hated group called Hamas — hated in the Arab world, hated by Egypt — becomes popular [as a consequence]." He adds, "It's a mistake. I think it was our mistake."
Hamas, known to the outside world chiefly as a group that glorifies suicide bombings, is known inside Gaza — just as Hezbollah is known inside Lebanon — also for providing social services and aid to the dispossessed. Also frequently overlooked: The group first came to power in Gaza by winning a 2006 election over the Fatah party notorious for corruption. The electoral victory flummoxed Israel, Washington and Fatah, which was driven out of Gaza by force of arms the following year.
(See pictures of Hamas recruitment day.)
The blockade followed, and remained in place until the Mavi Marmara shattered the status quo, and set Israel groping for a new policy. One well-connected former defense official suggests essentially writing Gaza off. Giora Eiland, a retired major general chosen to head one narrow inquiry into the day's events, said in an interview with TIME that Israel could end the sea blockade by permitting sea cargo only from "trusted countries." With Gaza reliably supplied by sea, Israel could permanently seal off its land portals into the territory. That would mean walking away from its legal obligations as an occupation force, inviting yet more international opprobrium, but has the appeal of making the Gaza Strip someone else's problem. "Israel made a move five years ago when it evacuated the settlements," Eiland says. "But unfortunately it failed to get rid of the responsibility for what's going on in Gaza."