After the end of the bloodshed in Gaza last summer, there was a brief recognition on the part of the international community, and even within Israel, that the misery of Gaza and its people was unsustainable. There was a sense that finally the international public was conscious that keeping 1.8 million people under siege, struggling with dire living conditions, and fearing for their lives from another round of violence, was neither morally acceptable nor politically expedient.
In response to the devastation caused by the Israeli military in its war with Hamas, international donors pledged $5.4 billion for the reconstruction of Gaza. This pledge was greeted with great enthusiasm, though also with mixed scepticism. The people of Gaza desperately need this foreign aid; nevertheless, they are experienced with years of similar unfulfilled promises by donor countries. This enormous amount of money seemed almost too good to be true – and this unfortunately proved to be the case.
Morality in international affairs
It might be unfashionable to speak about morality in international affairs, but any political debate that is not anchored in some discussion about the state of humanity is rather hollow. Since Hamas took control of Gaza, much of the debate revolved around the suitability and legitimacy of this Islamist movement. The countries with the most influence over the situation in Gaza took a hard-line towards not-recognising a Hamas government. Considering that the Hamas was elected democratically and have considerable influence within the Palestinian society, closing all the doors to dealing with it for many years has some fundamental flaws. Worse, however, is that in the process it also embedded the justification for punishing the entire Gazan population for voting for them in the first place, and for not toppling them ever since. This can hardly be morally justified. The people of Gaza have already paid a heavy price during the conflict between the Fatah and Hamas in 2006 and through living under a regime, which consistently and frequently violates their civil, human and political rights. Three rounds of extensive military confrontations with Israel, Cast Lead (2008-9), Pillar of Defense (2012) and Operation Protective Edge (2014), left thousands of Palestinians dead, many more injured and maimed, and infrastructure devastated. Operation Protective Edge left close to 2200 people dead and 11,000 wounded in Gaza, most of whom were civilians.
Right now Gazans have little trust in anyone, not even in the UNWRAYossi Mekelberg
The Gaza Strip is suffocated economically, politically and culturally by the Israeli and Egyptian blockade. In the best of times, 80 percent of the population depend on international aid, and more than two-thirds are registered as refugees with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA). The U.N. agency which is in charge of Palestinian refugees since 1949, provides them with many of their basic needs. In the 50 days of conflict during the summer, according to UNWRA, the homes of at least 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza were damaged or destroyed. Currently 8,000 families are awaiting the repair of their houses and a further 3,000 are awaiting their rental subsidies. Basic human rights were also violated during the Israeli ground offensive in the summer. An Israeli/Palestinian NGO, Hamoked, reported the detention, arrest and interrogation of hundreds of Palestinians “…without their families being notified of their arrest or whereabouts.”
In a society that suffers from 44.5 per cent unemployment and similar figures regarding poverty, any cycle of violence pushes it even deeper into despair and along with it into radicalization. Atle Mesoy, an expert on terrorism and radicalization, highlights this trend in a paper for the highly respected Norwegian think-tank NOREF. Mesoy states that in “weak, conflict-ridden” states, poverty plays a very significant role in encouraging radicalization into violent extremism. The fact that more than half of the unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 24 years old, makes the danger of radicalization particularly acute. The Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon argued, “It’s in our [Israel] interest for the residents of Gaza to improve their economic situation and their lives.” Yet, the Israeli government, despite easing some of the restrictions vis-à-vis access to Gaza, is imposing “sweeping and indiscriminate restrictions,” according to the Israeli NGO Gisha (Access), on the movement of people and goods inside and outside Gaza. The movement of people is limited to humanitarian cases and “senior traders.”
Gaza is deprived
Gaza is deprived of goods, especially construction materials, and its present levels of trade with the West Bank and Israel are much lower than the pre-2007 levels. To make things even worse, the Rafah Crossing with Egypt suffers from frequent closures. Egypt under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has branded Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Both Egypt and Israeli have legitimate security concerns regarding militancy in Gaza, but their answer to it will regrettably only lead to exacerbating the conditions there and consequently result in further radicalisation, especially among the young. The arbitrariness of the restrictions of movement is at times agonising. Students are not allowed to travel to go study, couples who would like to wed or are already married are not allowed to unite with their loved ones in the West Bank, or elsewhere, and cultural engagement with the outside world is almost impossible.
For now, ISIS is not a power to reckon with in the Gaza Strip, however, there are worrying signs of support for the group. This should serve as an early warning for those, who would not like to see an ISIS type organisation on their borders, to address the political and economic needs of the Palestinians not only in Gaza, but elsewhere as well.
Right now Gazans have little trust in anyone, not even in UNWRA, that under very difficult circumstances tries to provide the bare necessities to the refugees, including health, education and housing among other services. Recently, a violent demonstration took place in front of the U.N. compound, in the Rimal neighborhood in Gaza city, protesting the inability of the U.N. to improve conditions for the residents of the place. The unfortunate reality is that UNWRA was forced to suspend much of its cash assistance program, which supports repairs and provides rental subsidies to Palestine refugee families in Gaza, due to a lack of funding. The organization has a shortfall of $585 million, despite the promises given in Cairo back in October. In the short term, this shortage was relieved thanks to $13.5 million transferred by Saudi Arabia.
Unless there is a sea of change approach to Gaza by Israel, Egypt and donor countries, the situation there will remain explosive and another conflict with Israel is likely to occur in the not too distant future. Despite 50 days of Israeli military operations, the Hamas is still capable of hitting deep into Israel with its rockets. The required approach is not to overlook security concerns, but instead to remove arbitrary restrictions that have little or no impact on security. Gaza cannot be disconnected from the West Bank forever. Resuming the reconciliation between the Fatah and the Hamas is essential, if only in order to hold the long overdue elections for the Palestinian Authority. Pledges from donor countries should be fulfilled, otherwise it prolongs the suffering of the Gazan people and leaves them even more disillusioned. Only when these steps take place will there be a chance for Gaza to start its political, economic and social reconstruction. Yet, without ensuring a long term peaceful solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, even this will not be enough to avoid more conflict in the future.
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.SHOW MORE