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Defusing the Gaza Flashpoint

Last February at the Brookings Institution’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a passionate speech calling for an end to the "siege" of Gaza and demanding Israeli lift its naval blockade of the tiny (140 square miles large) strip of land that is home to one and a half million Palestinians.

He got rousing applause from an audience of Muslims from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Oman and Nigeria. The Forum itself was dominated by conversations about the situation in Gaza and the plight of the Palestinians who live there. It was clear that Erdogan intended to push the issue.

Last weekend Erdogan and Turkey backed up their call with the dispatch of the "Freedom Flotilla" to Gaza. Elite Israeli naval commandoes stormed the ships, killing several of those on board and igniting a new crisis. Turkey is determined to press its case and has called for action in virtually every international forum it can including the United Nations Security Council and NATO’s North Atlantic Council.

The siege of Gaza has failed. It has not weakened Hamas control of the strip; rather it seems to have cemented it. Nor has it disarmed Hamas. Hamas’ old enemy Fatah has faded away in Gaza. The opposition to Hamas’ control of Gaza today comes from even more radical groups that align themselves with al Qaeda.

Our ally Egypt has been collateral damage in the process. Because it keeps its border with Gaza closed, Muslims increasingly see Cairo as facilitating the blockade. President Mubarak moved quickly this week to open the border but it unlikely that will be a permanent solution.

The siege has gravely damaged America’s standing in the Islamic world because we are seen as defending it. Americans may have paid little attention to the situation in the last two years but it is nightly news from Morocco to Indonesia thanks to Al Jazeera and other 24-hour news channels. The Gaza blockade has become a major recruiting tool for al Qaeda, Hizballah and other extremists. It was a driving part of the motivation for the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed six CIA officers on December 30, 2009 in Afghanistan. Obama’s initiative to change Muslim views of America, highlighted by his speech in Cairo a year ago, is being undermined by Gaza.

Secretary Clinton called the situation in Gaza “unsustainable” this week. She is right, but U.S. policy is also unsustainable. We need to find a way to get humanitarian aid to Gaza while ensuring Hamas can not smuggle in more rockets to attack Israeli cities and that prevents al Qaeda and other extremists from smuggling in "volunteers" who want to wage jihad.

Fortunately there is precedent for an international regime to monitor shipping in the region. In the 1990s the United Nations created a special regime to inspect cargo going to Iraq, then under UN sanctions, through the Jordanian port of Aqaba. The U.N. hired Lloyds of London to provide inspectors who examined each cargo to ensure Iraq was not importing banned material, especially weapons or technology for weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi people got aid but Saddam could not get WMD.

A regime like that needs to be established urgently to defuse Gaza. NATO could help provide inspectors; it already has a counter terrorism naval presence in the Mediterranean called Operation Active Endeavour created immediately after 9/11. If Hamas refuses to accept such a regime, the onus for any suffering in Gaza would clearly be on it. If it does, then the world can start rebuilding Gaza.