The European Union on Monday called Israel's closure of Gaza "unacceptable" and offered to play a role in opening the borders, as Israel appointed three Israeli experts and two foreign observers to a commission to investigate its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.
The EU move added to the intense pressure Israel has faced to lift the blockade since nine pro-Palestinian activists died in clashes after Israeli commandos rappelled aboard one of the aid ships last month. The three-year closure has withheld all but the most basic supplies from Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinian residents.
The most notable dissent has come from President Barack Obama, who called the Gaza closure unsustainable. The U.S. pressure resonates more with the Israelis because of their close alliance with Washington.
International envoy Tony Blair also weighed in with a call to ease the blockade and said there were indications Israel was prepared to consider doing that.
EU has opposed blockade
Israel has maintained the blockade to keep weapons and missiles out of the hands of Hamas, to undermine support for the Islamic militants among Gazans and to press for release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for four years. None of those goals has been achieved, but Israel warns that lifting the embargo altogether would allow Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, to bring in unlimited weapons and missiles to be turned against the Jewish state.
The 27-nation EU has consistently opposed the blockade since it was imposed in 2007, objecting to the hardships caused to the people of Gaza.
In Luxembourg on Monday, the EU described the blockade as "unacceptable and politically counterproductive," saying in a statement it was prepared to return to an active role in helping supervise Gaza's border crossings.
The EU helped run the Egypt-Gaza crossing before Hamas overran the territory in 2007 and the EU observers were withdrawn.
The EU, like the U.S. and Israel, considers Hamas a terrorist group and does not have direct contacts with Gaza's rulers. The statement said the EU would continue contacts with Israel, the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas — whose forces were expelled from Gaza by Hamas — and "other appropriate parties," without mentioning Hamas.
Despite that, Hamas has felt vindicated by the outcry over the bloody flotilla attack, basking in the afterglow of this week's first visit since Hamas overran Gaza by the top Arab diplomat, Amr Moussa of the Arab League.
Several ideas are being floated to improve the dire situation in Gaza, where people have adequate basic food but little else — no exports, few consumer products, no raw materials and few construction supplies to rebuild damage from the Israel-Hamas war 18 months ago.
The main thrust of the EU statement was a demand to open the borders to civilian goods, with strict safeguards. "To this end, full and regular access via land crossings, and possibly by sea, on the basis of a list of prohibited goods, should be the prime aim," the statement said.
Israel names its own commission
Up to now Israel has maintained a list of items it permits into Gaza through its crossings, banning the rest. Replacing that with a list of forbidden items, like weapons, and letting everything else in is among the ideas on the table, said an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made.
While considering ways to ease pressure over the blockade, Israel also sought Monday to blunt calls for an international investigation of the May 31 flotilla attack.
Israel named its own inquiry commission, headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court justice Yaakov Turkel, joined by 93-year-old legal expert Shabtai Rosen and Amos Horev, a retired general and ex-president of the Technion, an Israeli university.
In an attempt to widen the image of the inquiry, Israel's Cabinet also approved two prominent international observers: David Trimble, a Nobel peace laureate from Northern Ireland, and Canada's former chief military prosecutor, retired Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin.
Trimble, a member of the British House of Lords, belongs to a pro-Israel faction in the parliament. Watkin has been a visiting fellow in the human rights program at Harvard Law School.
The participation of Trimble — who, like most Protestants in Northern Ireland, closely identifies with Israel — as well as the limited scope of the inquiry could draw international criticism.
Abbas rejected the commission, asserting it falls short of U.N. Security Council demands for an "impartial" investigation. A U.N. spokesman said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon doesn't reject the Israeli investigation but still wants an international inquiry.
'An important step forward'
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Israeli move was "an important step forward" in meeting Security Council demands. "We believe that Israel certainly, as a government, has the institutions and certainly the capability to conduct a credible, impartial and transparent investigation," he said.
In rejecting an international inquiry, Israel argued that the United Nations and other global bodies have a long history of bias against Israel.
From the Israeli point of view, the outcome of its inquiry appeared dictated by its mandate.
First, the panel will examine the justification and legality of the Gaza blockade, then look at how Israeli actions to enforce the closure conform with international law. Lastly, a government statement said, it will examine "actions taken by those who organized — and participated in — the flotilla, and their identities."
Israel claims the pro-Palestinian activists who attacked naval commandoes with iron rods, clubs and knives were well-trained mercenaries eager for a fight. Flotilla organizers insist the Israelis opened fire first.
Speaking after the Cabinet vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told members of his Likud Party that "difficult days lie ahead," but that forming the commission was the best of a series of poor options.
"I want to make it clear that the flotilla to Gaza was not a one-time event. We are in the midst of a tough and continuous struggle against the state of Israel," he said.