The Gaza Blockade

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Facts about the Gaza Strip

Located in the Middle East, The Gaza Strip is in the southwest corner of Israel. It shares an 11 km border with Egypt and a 40 km coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. The territory is 360 sq km and has a temperate climate. The population of 1,551,859 identify with the ethnicity of Palestinian Arab while 99.3% are Sunni Muslims and the other 0.7% are Christian. They speak Arabic & Hebrew but also understand English. Their median age is 17.5 years old and 92.4% of the population is considered literate. The territory has one airport and one major seaport.

The land is rich in natural gases and good for farming although the people struggle with many irrigation and sanitations issues. The area is also prone to many droughts. They produce olives, fruit, vegetables, flowers, beef & dairy products. However, their economy is severely limited by the strict internal and external security controls enforced by Israel, as well as a 40% unemployment rate (which is, in large part, a cause of those same controls, about which we will speak at greater length).

Why was the blockade put into place? Who is participating?

The Gaza Strip, once part of Egypt, was occupied by Israel during the 1967 “Six Day War.” In the ensuing years, the Strip increasingly became a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether due to the simple fact of decades of Israeli occupation, or increased militancy and terrorist tactics from Gaza-based Palestinian militants, or the tensions created by Jewish settlers moving into sections of Gaza to create settlements that were protected by the Israeli army.

In 2003, a “Quartet” composed of the US, EU, UN and Russia, proposed a “Road Map for Peace” which called for Palestine to form a democratic government and end violence. Israel was called to end their settlement expansion within the Gaza Strip and to recognize the new Palestinian government by removing military restrictions. The goal of the Road Map was to make a peaceful two-state solution the common goal of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

However, the Road Map failed because neither side yielded to the demands of the other, and both seemed uninterested in a two-state solution (or were unable to muster the political wherewithal to move aggressively towards it). Thus the violence continued and, in response, Prime Minister Sharon enacted the ‘Unilateral Disengagement Plan” in August 2005. Without any negotiations with the Palestinians, the Prime Minister asked Jewish settlers in Gaza to leave the territory or else be forcefully evicted within two days. Tens of thousand Israeli troops supervised the exodus and helped those who left voluntarily with monetary compensation packages and labor. Many Jews did not want to leave Gaza because they believed it was “biblically ordained for the Jews” along with the rest of Israel. They did not believe that the withdrawal would safeguard Jewish citizens from Palestinian attack, but rather that it would result simply in “relinquish(ing) Jewish settlements to Arab control”. 19 Though many feared that the settlers would massively resist the withdrawal, however, the move went quite smoothly, and there are no Israeli settlers living in Gaza any longer. It is important to understand, however, that even though Israel evacuated the Jewish settlers that its army had been protecting, Israel retains control of the land and sea borders of Gaza, as well as the air.

Many Gazans saw this move as a Palestinian victory because it left the territory in their hands for the first time in many years. Hamas saw the move as a direct “result of violent Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation” and stated that the withdrawal made it possible for the Israeli Defense Forces to carry out their missions in Gaza without impacting Israeli citizens.19 Israeli Prime Minister Sharon claimed it was done “to keep terrorism at a minimum - as far as this is possible - and to provide Israel's citizens with maximum security.” He said “the process of disengagement will improve quality of life and will strengthen Israel's economy”.21 Part of the Prime Minister’s motivation also had to do with demography. He knew that the birthrate of the Palestinian residents of Gaza was rising at a far higher rate than that of Israeli Jews, and he feared the loss of Jewish control.

The Disengagement was carried out, but Sharon’s plan failed at ‘managing the terrorism’ of the Palestinians. After the withdrawal, there was a significant increase of Palestinian attacks on Israel. To make matters worse, a civil political dispute was rising in Palestine.

The Palestinian National Authority (PA) was formed as a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords. The accords called for the PA to recognize the state of Israel, and for Israel to accept the PA as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. However, Hamas and Fatah, the two main political parties within Palestine did not agree on the accords. Yasser Arafat, leader of Fatah supported the accords and became the first President of the PA. However, Hamas refused to accept the accords and rights of Israel. Despite their opposition (and in many ways, because of it), Hamas gained popularity among Palestinians and participated in the 2006 legislative elections and won, resulting in Hamas naming the Prime Minister (Ismail Haniya) and controlling the government under PA President (and Fatah leader) Mahmoud Abbas, who had succeeded Yassir Arafat upon the latter’s death in 2004. Many Hamas voters supported Hamas’s militant stance, and still others were drawn to its ardently Islamist perspective. In the end, however, many of the more-secular Palestinian voters were drawn to Hamas by its promise of clean government, rejecting Fatah corruption which has tainted the party’s reputation.

The win by Hamas was a surprise to many, both within Palestine and beyond. Israel, the United States, and the countries of the European Union reacted to the Hamas victory with horror, seeing Hamas as a terrorist organization (one that did not recognize Israel’s right to exist) that needed to be extinguished. Civil disputes between Fatah and Hamas arose over the next year and despite Fatah’s attempts to gain back complete control of the PA, in June of 2007, Hamas forcefully expelled Fatah from Gaza and now claims to govern the PA in Gaza6 (see the “HAMAS and FATAH: Recent Events” reading for more details). In response to the forced exchange of power, Hamas solidified its control in Gaza, and the EU & US withdrew all support and aid for the PA.7 In addition, Israel (with the support and active participation of the US and the EU) “imposed an unprecedented blockade on all border crossings in and out of the Gaza Strip”.1

The decision to blockade Gaza was supported by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Quartet and Egypt. However, “with the passage of time, and as the counterproductive nature of the blockade became increasingly obvious, Israel's partners publicly took their distance, though privately some continued to encourage Israel to continue the blockade."12

Israeli declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” in September 2007 and threatened to further limit goods if violence continued, a decision that was backed by the United States. Palestinians and international agencies, including the UN, described the blockade as collective punishment and illegal under international law. Hamas viewed Israel’s declaration as a declaration of war.20

How have the Gazans responded "on the ground” to the blockade?

In January 2008, Palestinian militants blew up about 3 km of the 12 km wall separating Gaza from Rafah, Egypt. Palestinians stormed across the border to buy food, fuel, and supplies not usually available to them due to the blockade. “Hamas expressed support for the action, saying: ‘Blowing up the border wall with Egypt is a reflection of the ... catastrophic situation which the Palestinian people in Gaza are living through due to the blockade’”.8

Israel’s ‘economic blockade’ also led Hamas to call smuggling “a patriotic duty” and to encourage the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza to literally ‘dig out’ of their economic crisis by digging smuggling tunnels to Rafah.9 In 2008, there were estimated to be over a thousand tunnels across the border, hidden under a city of tents (the number has decreased to about 200 tunnels in 2010 as the blockade was slightly eased). The tunnels are usually about thirty feet deep and a half-mile long,10 and are able to transport everything from kitchen appliances to cattle, cigarettes, fuel, clothes, medicine, food, weapons, and even carts.

Tunnel smuggling is a dangerous business and many workers die from tunnels collapsing, fuel spills, Egyptian gassing, or electrocution, but it is a well-paid profession in Gaza and often the only opportunity for Gazans to provide for their families. One smuggler claims “we are all Gazans, and we all prefer to live freely and live normally like other humans. But what can we do? All the world put their siege on us and obliged us to smuggle our needs through the tunnels”.9

Hamas has grown stronger from the underground commerce. They charge about $5,000 for a digging license and collect monthly taxes. Ironically, by supervising the tunnel smuggling, Hamas leaders also get to “show Gazans that they're doing something about the border closures and sanctions”.9

In May 2010 it was reported about 30,000 Palestinians are employed by the tunnel system earning about $20 a day while 39% of the population is unemployed.10

On the Israeli side of the blockade, “intelligence warns that Hamas is using the tunnels to import long-range rockets and high explosives” to be used in attacks against Israel. 9 In defense, Israeli aircraft often bomb the tent cities as well as continuing to closely monitor their military outposts, and limit the goods allowed across the border.11

The tunnels have put Egypt in a tough situation as well. Israel is pressuring Egypt to support the full isolation of Hamas by limiting their sources of goods and preventing weapons to enter Gaza. However, Egypt also does not want to anger the Arab world (or its own citizenry) by shutting off Gaza completely. Thus, while the tunnel smuggling is a respected occupation in Gaza, the tunnels in Egypt must remain secret.

The slight easing of the blockade in 2010 brought about a significant decrease in business for the tunnel smugglers. Israel is allowing more and more goods into Gaza that are often offered at a lower price than the illegally smuggled goods from Egypt. Israeli goods are also often better quality.25

What happened with the Turkish aid flotilla in June 2010? How did it affect the blockade?

On May 31st 2010, the “Israeli army raided a humanitarian flotilla headed to Gaza”.13 Nine Turks died in the conflict but the exact events leading to their deaths are contested.18

Israeli forces claim they intercepted the flotilla 25 miles within the blockade zone. Despite radio warnings, the main ship of the flotilla – the Mavi Marmara – did not stop and so Israel deployed its seaborne special forces. The special forces team was met with violent resistance on the deck of the ship, and used their firearms.18 Among the topics very much in dispute was the extent of the threat represented by the people on the ship, and whether the Israelis has exacerbated the situation with their dramatic landing on the ship.

It was the ninth attempt since 2008 to break the blockade by sea, but the first that resulted in bloodshed.21 The flotilla was organized by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the Cyprus-based Free Gaza Movement and various Turkish charities. Their goal was “to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation".24

Israel said they had warned the flotilla that if the cargo was first inspected at an Israeli port, they would be allowed to pass through the blockade with their aid. However, the “organizers said they would ignore the warning an try to break the blockade” by force. 22

Turkey is considered Israel’s only Muslim ally but, after the raid, Turkey’s foreign minister “threatened to break diplomatic ties with Israel” unless they “apologized or accepted the outcome of an international inquiry into the raid”.14 Soon after, Israel admitted that “the operation suffered from flawed intelligence-gathering and inadequate planning.” However, Israel also “praised the commandos involved and found the use of force had been the only way to stop the flotilla”.16

What was the blockade supposed to accomplish? Has it had the desired effect?

“The stated objectives of the blockade--which has varied from time to time--were to oblige Hamas to moderate its policies or otherwise to weaken or depose that Islamist movement, and to force a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit (an Israeli soldier seized by Palestinians commandos in June 2006, and held in Gaza since then) on terms acceptable to Israel”.12 Essentially, Gaza was blockaded by Israel “until Hamas agreed to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept the Oslo [Accords] framework”.12 Israel ultimately hoped to hasten the downfall of Hamas by imposing the blockade and “constraining its ability to govern”.25 From the perspective of Hamas, the blockade is proof that the Israelis (and their American and EU allies) were being deceitful when they advocated so passionately for democratic elections in the Occupied Territories. Israel and its allies were all for democracy, they say, until they didn’t like the outcome…so they put on a stranglehold.

In the wake of the May 31st Turkish flotilla raid, Israel was pressured to “accelerate the easing” of the blockade. In July 2010, Israel confirmed that consumer goods not on a blacklist of items possibly used by the military, and building materials for approved Palestinian Authority projects, would be allowed into Gaza. The new approved list includes: ketchup, chocolate, children’s toys, spices, paper, perfume, mattresses, washing machines, etc. The banned list still includes: fertilizers, gas tanks, drilling equipment, water disinfectant, etc.17 However, the Gazan economy remains at a virtual standstill, as exports are still not allowed, and the sea blockade and regulation of the borders remains strict.14

The new regulations are aimed at improving the daily lives of the people of Gaza. “Under its old rules, Israel allowed only a few dozen types of products, including basic food and medicine, into Gaza. The announcement to ease the blockade was made by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu after meeting with the American President, Barack Obama, in July 2010.14

However, questions about the political sustainability of the blockade remain. “UN statistics show that around 70% of Gazans live on less than $1 a day, 75% rely on food aid and 60% have no daily access to water. The World Bank estimates that 80% of Gaza's imports are smuggled in by tunnel” and the goods, which are taxed by Hamas, are sold at inflated prices that are out of the reach of most ordinary residents.24

It was announced in August 2010 that Israel has agreed to more peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, that will cover issues such as the “borders of a new Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem, security guarantees for Israel and right of return of Palestinian refugees.” However, Hamas is not a party to these talks, which calls seriously into question their ultimate value. In addition, the Palestinian people are still divided in their support for Fatah or Hamas. 26

What do the critics of the blockade have to say?

By 2010, critics claimed that “the siege of Gaza has failed. It has not weakened Hamas’s control of the strip; rather it seems to have cemented it. Nor has it disarmed Hamas”. Rather, “Hamas’ old enemy Fatah has faded away in Gaza”. 28

The blockade’s restrictions on Gaza “have been widely described as collective punishment of the population of Gaza, resulting in a humanitarian crisis”.14 In addition to violating international humanitarian law and human rights law, the blockade “was widely condemned by humanitarian and human rights groups as authorizing collective punishment, because it imposed severe restrictions on the movement of civilians and civilian goods, not in response to a concrete security threat but rather as a means of exercising pressure on the Hamas leadership”. 7

Despite the easing of the blockade in July 2010, many countries and international agencies have not eased their discontent. In late July 2010, eighteen leading NGOs – including Christian Aid, CAFOD, Amnesty International, Pax Christi and War Child UK – called upon the EU to “insist on the full lifting of the blockade of Gaza, not just its easing, if it is serious about helping the economy of Gaza recover and allowing its people to rebuild their lives”. They claimed the recent changes have only been steps forward, but “they fall short of what is needed to rebuild Gaza’s economy and what is required by international law”.15

The NGOs called for “action in five ‘key areas’: ending the ban on exports from Gaza; allowing movement of people into and from Gaza; ensuring sufficient capacity and efficiency of the crossings; allowing the entry of construction materials for the private sector; and ensuring access to Gaza’s agricultural land and fishing grounds”.15

“Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, told the Associated Press news agency that the [revised] policy was ‘worthless’, adding: ‘The problem is not to approve new merchandise, but to lift the blockade’”.14































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