Soon after the election of Hamas in 2006, Israel developed and implemented a policy it called “isolation” of Gaza to convince the Palestinian people that they had made a very bad choice. The basic idea was that Gaza would be cut off from the world under the guise of a military blockade, which was certainly justified, but moreover Gaza was essentially sealed off to the world.
In the years before the takeover of Egypt by President Abdel Fattah Sisi, the Gazan economy survived because of about 1,000 tunnels that enabled everything imaginable to get into the strip. Since Sisi came to power, the tunnels have been destroyed, the legal crossing point between Sinai and Gaza has been closed almost all the time, and the Israeli crossings into Gaza have been one-way only – going into Gaza.
While during the first years of the isolation policy there were very strict limitations on what got into and out of Gaza, in recent years the type and quantity of goods getting into Gaza has greatly increased, but still almost nothing gets out. The result of this policy is a destroyed Gazan economy, with over 40% unemployment (Over 60% in the under-30 age bracket), more than 100,000 university graduates with no jobs and no future, closed factories and broken dreams. The policy of isolation has not created a public revolt against Hamas mainly because the people of Gaza see no other viable option – especially when there is also no hope of a political settlement in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority cooperates with Israel on security issues, including the battle against Hamas.
Imagine living in a place which is so small and so densely populated, where you live in a large cage, closed on all sides, with no hope for any kind of decent future. Do you blame your leaders who stand up to your enemy, or do you blame those who hold the keys to the gates – those you believe stole your home and destroyed your future? In a reality where there is no viable peace process, no negotiations and continued foreign control of your economy, including water and electricity, as well as total control over movement and access – what would you do? I imagine you would not surrender.
To me the Israeli policy of isolation of Gaza makes no sense whatsoever. The military blockade that is preventing weapons from entering Gaza does makes sense and is also legal under international law, but the disconnection of Gaza from the world is senseless and only strengthens the most extreme elements within Gaza – as we continue to see. Israel controls not only what gets into Gaza, they also what gets out. There is no real security problem in allowing convoys of trucks to be inspected at the Gaza-Israel crossings and then escorted to the West Bank, or to the Allenby bridge for transit to Jordan. There is also no real security problem involved in allowing goods produced in Gaza to be sold in Israel, because every truck and box can be securely checked by Israel.
At the time of disengagement there were more than a million pieces of garments being sewed in Gaza for Israeli companies to be exported to Europe. There are many possibilities for enabling the Gaza economy to be reconnected with Israel, the West Bank and the rest of the world. This would help in rebuilding a moderate middle class, which has been totally destroyed in Gaza since the implementation of the isolation policy.
Gaza agricultural products used to flow freely into Israel and Gazan farmers bought Israeli seeds, fertilizers, irrigation equipment and used to export their goods via the Israeli export company Agrexco. Beit Hanun and Beit Lahiya in the north of Gaza were described in the past as villages of peace. My organization, IPCRI, conducted many joint training sessions for Gaza farmers together with the Israeli Volcani Agricultural Institute. We also conducted hundreds of meetings between Gazan businessmen and their Israeli counterparts. This can all be renewed, if the Israeli policy of isolation is reversed.
Last evening I spent a long time on the phone with a young woman university graduate from Gaza who wants to continue her studies in the West Bank. It is against the policy of isolation to allow this woman to study in the West Bank. Why? How does this convince her and her family to being against Hamas? It doesn’t – but as she said to me, “I support peace with Israel, but does Israel support peace with me?” There are many, many people like this one young woman from Gaza who never met an Israeli before, never visited Israel and is taught to see Israel as the wall, the fence and closed gate standing between her and her future.
If the situation in Gaza remains based on the same isolation policy, it will continue to deteriorate. If that is the case, then the next Gaza war really is a question of when and not if. From previous experiences we should know that the one unifying factor that increases support for Hamas in Gaza, the West Bank and throughout the Muslim world, is when Israel goes to war against Gaza. Three times since 2008 should provide us with enough knowledge to understand that the surest way to support Hamas is to wage war against it.
Hamas has less support today amongst Gazans than at any point since the summer war of 2014. Prior to that war Hamas was at a low point in public support as well. The people in Gaza need to understand that there are viable alternatives to Hamas, they need to know that moderation is worthwhile.
Israel needs an intelligent policy on Gaza that takes into account the fact that the people of Gaza will always be our neighbors, they are not going into the sea and they are not going to disappear. Their welfare and their future is an Israeli concern and Israel should use its power to enable the best possible future for those people, without having to take direct responsibility for them. It is time to dump the policy of isolation and to allow the people of Gaza to once again excersise their rights to freedom and a better life.
The author is the founder and chairman of the board of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives.(www.ipcri.org).