Israel has turned down an offer from Qatar for a reopening of diplomatic contacts between the two countries in return for the Gulf state being allowed to import supplies to Gaza to carry out a series of badly needed reconstruction projects.
Qatar had proposed a major thawing of relations between the two countries in which Israel would have been allowed to reopen its official interests office, shut down on the orders of the emirate during the military onslaught on Gaza in January 2009.
But in return it wanted an easing of the three-year blockade of Gaza to allow a major increase in imports of cement and construction materials to start rebuilding war-ravaged sectors of the besieged territory.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was initially attracted by the proposal in what would have been the first step since he took office towards "normalisation" in relations between his country and an Arab state that does not officially recognise it.
But senior government officials have confirmed that he and other key ministers were not prepared to accept the conditions set by Qatar's royal family on the grounds that some of the materials might have fallen into the hands of Hamas, and used for military purposes. The decision to reject the offer by Qatar – which although still a US ally is seen by some Arab states, including Egypt, as having deepened its links with Iran – was sharply criticised in an editorial this week in the liberal daily Haaretz. The paper questioned whether the decision was not "deranged somewhat" and pointed out that Israel had been seeking "normalisation" with Arab countries.
Israel continued to allow humanitarian supplies in to Gaza and has recently admitted some severely limited shipments of construction materials for specific projects such as a sewage works for the northern strip and the Al Quds Hospital, which was badly damaged by white phosphorus bombardment during the offensive.
But it has continued to bar the import and export of commercial goods, as well as cement and other construction goods for the task of reconstructing Gaza – including housing and many of its most important factories destroyed in the war – for which the international community earmarked more than $5bn in 2009.
Israel told European diplomats earlier this week that its navy planned to halt an attempt by pro-Palestinian activists to beat the blockade next week by sending a flotilla of three cargo ships and five passenger vessels carrying supplies to Gaza.
The Haaretz editorial said: "The danger that a few tons of concrete bolster Hamas's military power or damage Egypt's status is not equivalent to the huge diplomatic gains Israel stands to make by restoring relations with Qatar. It is very important that a state maintaining close ties with Iran and Syria is prepared to renew relations with Israel ... When an Arab state is willing to help rebuild Gaza, and in so doing contribute to rehabilitating Israel's status in the world, it doesn't take much to understand the importance of the opportunity."
While saying that the conditions sought by Hamas had been turned down on the grounds that materials might be used by them for military purposes, a government official was unable to confirm a report in the same paper that the rejection stemmed in large part from Egyptian opposition. Relations between Egypt and Qatar are tense partly because of criticisms of Cairo on the Doha-based satellite channel Al Jazeera and the emirate's perceived closeness to Iran.
But while the report quoted Egyptian sources as saying that its opposition to the Qatar proposal had been co-ordinated with Israel and the international "Quartet" of the US, EU, Russia and the UN, a senior Western diplomat said this week he was unaware of any international consultations on the issue.
Israeli soldiers yesterday killed two Palestinians who had infiltrated the country from southern Gaza. The military said both were militants and had exchanged fire with troops near the Israeli border community of Nirim.