The Obama administration believes Israel's blockade of Gaza is untenable and wants to see a new approach that would allow more supplies into the impoverished Palestinian area while guaranteeing Israel's security, The New York Times reported Thursday.
On Monday, Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of ships — that sought to run the Israeli blockade and deliver aid — in an operation that killed nine people.
White House officials said that the raid gave strength to a growing consensus within the administration that U.S. and Israeli policy toward Gaza must change, the Times said.
“There is no question that we need a new approach to Gaza,” one official told the newspaper, which said he spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy shift was still in the early stages.
However, the paper said he was reflecting a broadly held view in the upper reaches of the administration. The official stressed that any new approach would have to ensure Israel’s security, while allowing more supplies into the impoverished Palestinian area.
In a separate statement, White House officials said they had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to use "caution and restraint" before the raid on the aid convoy.
"We communicated with Israel through multiple channels many times regarding the flotilla," P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said in a statement issued in response to a question from The Washington Post.
"We emphasized caution and restraint given the anticipated presence of civilians, including American citizens," Crowley told the newspaper.
Blockade seen as symbol
Israeli officials believe the blockade is necessary to prevent supplies of weapons and fighters sponsored by Iran getting into Gaza.
If there were no blockade in place, Netanyahu said it would mean “an Iranian port in Gaza,” the Times reported. He added: “Israel will continue to maintain its right to defend itself.”
Netanyahu said Wednesday night that the nation had a right to inspect cargo on the flotilla, which carried construction materials, medicine, school paper and other aid to Gaza.
The flotilla was organized by the Free Gaza Movement and funded by a Turkish charity that Israeli officials say has connections to radical groups.
But the American officials told the Times they believed that even Netanyahu understood that a new approach was needed.
“Gaza has become the symbol in the Arab world of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and we have to change that,” the senior American official told the Times. “We need to remove the impulse for the flotillas. The Israelis also realize this is not sustainable.”
Israel's treatment of Palestinians is also seen as a symbol of the West's relationship with the Palestinians, the Times said.
Gaza is run by Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, has not renounced violence and does not accept previous accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The Times said that the diplomatic group known as the Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, has said that until Hamas meets those requirements, the Quartet will not deal with it.
The Quartet said a year ago that the current situation was not sustainable, the Times noted, and had also called for the unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian aid within Gaza, as well as the reopening of crossing points.
New urgency after raid
However Obama administration officials made it clear to the newspaper that the deaths Monday had given a new urgency to changing the policy toward the narrow strip of sand dunes and refugee camps that are home to 1.5 million people.
Turkey, which withdrew its ambassador to Israel after the raid, said Wednesday full restoration of diplomatic ties was contingent on an end to the blockade.
The new British prime minister, David Cameron, also called for an end to the blockade, criticizing the raid as “completely unacceptable.”
In an interview with Bloomberg TV, interviewer Charlie Rose broadcast Wednesday night and reported in The Washington Post, Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that the administration is trying to sway the Israeli government on the issue of Gaza.
He agreed that Israel had a right to inspect the cargo. "You can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not . . . but the truth of the matter is, Israel has a right to know — they're at war with Hamas — has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in," Biden told Rose.
"We have put as much pressure and as much cajoling on Israel as we can to allow them to get building materials" and other designated humanitarian aid into Gaza, he added.
Ambassador backs improvements
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, was quoted in the Post as saying that although lifting the blockade is out of the question, Israel shares the administration's goal of improving civilian life in the Gaza Strip. "We are open to the discussion of how best to reconcile the civilian needs of the people of Gaza with Israel's very real security needs," he said.
The Post said the administration's acknowledgment that it warned Israel against using excessive force comes as White House officials meet with Israeli diplomats and security officials to discuss how the blockade might be altered.
White House officials told the Post that Obama has had several phone calls with Netanyahu since the incident and that national security adviser James L. Jones met with his Israeli counterpart for several hours this week.
A White House official briefed on those meetings told the Post there is "a general sense in the administration that it's time to change our Gaza policy," although he would not elaborate on how the administration might change the way it engages an area controlled by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
The official said meetings have been held to explore "alternative approaches to dealing with ships who try to run the blockade, and to ensure the humanitarian aid reaches people in Gaza," the Post reported. The official added that "our militaries are in touch on this."