For nearly a decade the people of Gaza have lived in increasingly inhuman conditions caused by Israeli and Egyptian blockades, outbursts of war with Israel, and by a Hamas government with little regard for human rights. Nearly two million people, two-thirds of them refugees, are in desperate need of breaking the chains of the political equivalent of solitary confinement and a vicious cycle of violence.
In the aftermath of the 2014 war with Israel, that claimed more than 2100 Palestinians lives and sowed destruction across this tiny strip, more than $3.5 billion were pledged by donor countries from within the region and from the wider international community –a third of this money is yet to be paid. Yet, the main obstacle to any change of fortune in Gaza is the punitive access policy, which prevents movement of people, goods and capital in and out of this tiny and isolated piece of territory.
It is ironic that senior Israeli political and security leaders became the proponents of easing the pressure off Gaza. Notwithstanding their constant uncompromising and menacing language, there is a growing recognition among them that inflicting unremittent misery on the Gazan population is counterproductive to Israeli interests. Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon was quoted, for instance, as saying that it was not in Israel’s interest for the people in Gaza to live without dignity. He acknowledged that they paid a heavy price, but now it is in Israel’s self-interest to allow them to revive their economy.
Regrettably, there is still a massive gap between the views expressed above, of the need to bring normality to the lives of the people in Gaza, and the translation of this into facts on the ground. The recognition that when despair instead of hope takes hold of a society, the only outcome is radicalsation and perpetual conflict, has not resulted in a profound change in Israeli policies.
As is the case of the general attitude toward the Palestinians, the Israeli government’s policy toward Gaza is incoherent and lacks sophistication and complexityYossi Mekelberg
Two recent reports by the Israeli human rights NGO, Gisha (Access), highlight with surgical precision that Israeli policies, despite some improvements, still strangle Gaza’s economy and badly harm its civil society. The organisation, whose goal for more than a decade has been the protection of Palestinians’ freedom of movement, especially Gaza residents, rightly contends that the changes are mainly symbolic.
The prohibitions set by Israel on movement of people and goods range from incomprehensible to inexcusable and sheer arbitrary. Preventing visits of ailing family members or receiving of medical treatment is inhumane. Barring Gazan marathon runners from participating in a competition in Bethlehem, or children from attending a music camp in the West Bank is pathetic, and no security excuse can justify it.
To be sure, there was a significant increase in 2015 of travel permission for people and trade in and out of Gaza through the Erez and Kerem Shalom Crossings, in comparison to the two previous years. However, this is almost insignificant considering the real need for the reconstruction and development of the place. The more pertinent benchmark would the pre 2000 Second Intifada figures. In 2015, a monthly average of less than 15,000 exits by Palestinians was recorded, more than double than that of 2014.
Nonetheless, this was still unacceptably low in comparison to the 500,000 exits 16 years ago. To make things worse, this relatively modest increase is far from compensating for the ongoing closure of the Rafah Crossing by Egypt. The same is true for goods, especially those that are regarded as having a ‘dual-use’—that is those that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. These items include construction materials, chemicals, wood panels, uninterrupted power supply components, and batteries, to name a few. Admittedly, some of these items can be, and are, used in building tunnels or weapons and ammunition.
Yet, the long list of materials that are prohibited from entering the Strip, or only allowed in limited quantities, are devastating to the development of a viable Gazan economy and the reconstruction of the many thousands of buildings destroyed or badly damaged in the last round of war with Israel, including hospitals and schools. The very modest increase in construction materials entering the Gaza Strip is a drop in the ocean. The barriers on exporting the already limited output of agriculture, furniture and textile goods from Gaza to the West Bank or Israel leaves the economy stagnated.
One could sympathize with Israeli concerns of enabling the Hamas’ military wing to get its hands on material that might pose a threat to the country’s security. However, this should not result in putting harsh restrictions on those who need the supplies for non-belligerent purposes. A more refined and limited list of dual-use goods, which is transparent, paired with a more efficient process, allowing these items to be utilized for civilian needs is urgently required. As it stands now, Israeli access policies for Gaza smack of punitive rather than self-defense measures.
The draconian restrictions on movement, imposed by Israel on civil society organizations, including women, humanitarian, cultural, development and human rights, are nothing short of absurd, ruthless and counterproductive. Preventing these organizations from flourishing, by restricting them from traveling to workshops, courses or meetings with experts, Israel suffocates the buds of the very elements of society which might bring about more pluralistic and liberal change—the very type of society that Israel persistently claims is lacking and needed in Gaza.
As is the case of the general attitude toward the Palestinians, the Israeli government’s policy toward Gaza is incoherent and lacks sophistication and complexity. It is more concerned with appeasing the right wing voices that are one-trick ponies, who think that force, occupation and depriving Palestinians of civil and political rights will guarantee their security. It leaves the people of Gaza to pay the price and with it also any prospect of peace and reconciliation with Israel.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.