This weekend Israel, under growing pressure from Washington, announced a change in the siege strategy toward the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip. Up until now, Israel`s strategy has been to deny entry of almost all goods, except the most basic supplies it alone deems necessary to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. The list of goods that Israel has allowed into Gaza has changed, sometimes daily, as the Israeli government has sought to maintain its absolute, arbitary control. Gazans, faced with the engineered shortages of everything from diapers to coriander, have imported all manner of goods through an underground tunnel system linking Gaza with Egypt. As a result of the attempt of the `freedom flotilla` to break the siege and the resulting international outrage led by Turkey against Israeli actions on May 31, the Israeli government has promised to modify its draconian policies. Yet the debate over what kind of siege to place on the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million trapped Palestinian inhabitants avoids the critical point.
Instead of playing the game according to rules set by Israel, the international community must focus on creating an entirely new border regime on Gaza`s land borders and sea and air corridors; a regime that removes Israel from its commanding role as gatekeeper, encourages Egypt to establish economic links with its Palestinian neighbor, that establishes land and sea corridors that operate according to internationally accepted standards, and that restores to Palestinians a system to import and export goods and services according to their abilities and preferences--not those of their enemies.
The failure of the international community to confront Israel`s decision to isolate Gaza from Israel and the West Bank is at the root of the web of crises centered on Gaza today. However understandable the international focus on Gaza`s humanitarian emergency, what is at issue is the fact that Gaza`s current nightmare is the consequence of Israel`s continuing effort to separate the political, economic, and security destiny of the West Bank from that of the Gaza Strip--an objective that the international community has tacitly supported because of opposition to Hamas` rule in Gaza (for more on this, see Tony Karon`s piece in Time magazine and Marc Lynch`s Middle East Channel post).
Framing Gaza`s problem as a humanitarian issue represents a victory for the view of those intent upon tinkering at the margins of the ongoing crisis. Continuing to view the unconscionable humanitarian consequences of the embargo on Gaza that has increased incrementally over most of the last decade as simply the result of security or logistical shortcomings (a view that continues to be the case today), condemns the people of Gaza, more than half of whom are under the age of 18, to unending misery at the hands of a policy that has destroyed the economic fabric of Palestinian society.
Despite the recent show of concern for the Palestinians of Gaza, the international community (led by the United States), has been an active accomplice in the current crisis, focused on softening the hard edges of Israel`s draconian policies in a manner that leaves the essence of the policy intact and which acquiesces in, rather than challenges, Gaza`s engineered descent into penury. International inaction is almost solely the result of opposition to Hamas--arising from a fear that any amelioration of the Gaza status quo favors Hamas to the disadvantage of the `Ramallah model` represented by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.
`This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians, and now comes a moment of choice,` President Bush noted in July 2007, shortly after Fateh`s expulsion from Gaza. `The alternatives before the Palestinian people are stark. There is the vision of Hamas, which the world saw in Gaza--with murderers in black masks, and summary executions, and men thrown to their death from rooftops. By following this path, the Palestinian people would guarantee chaos, and suffering, and the endless perpetuation of grievance. They would surrender their future to Hamas`s foreign sponsors in Syria and Iran. And they would crush the possibility of a Palestinian state.` The widespread adoption of Bush`s narrative guaranteed the `chaos, suffering, and endless perpetuation of grievance` that he promised.
That said, the economic strangulation of Gaza actually preceded Hamas` election victory in January 2006 and Fateh`s bloody expulsion from Gaza in June 2007. It is rooted in Israel`s 2004 decision to `disengage` from Gaza. This policy resulted in an end to Israel`s permanent security and settlement deployment in Gaza, but also to a marked a change in its economic, trade, and labor relationship with the territory. An Israeli policy of economic estrangement along the Israel-Gaza frontier aimed at minimizing the transit of Palestinians, Palestinian labor, and economic trade across the Gaza Strip-Israel border and forcing Egypt to re-assume the economic and security role it played in Gaza before Israel`s June 1967 occupation. This latter policy represented a reversal of Israeli policies pursued from the inception of occupation in June 1967, and it enjoys broad popular support in Israel.
Draconian restrictions on the entry of Palestinian labor to Israel, the failure to establish a reliable export/import regime through Karni and other crossings, and the stillborn safe passage route linking Gaza with the West Bank--all signature elements of policy before June 2007 and indeed before Hamas` parliamentary victory in January 2006--are the product of this strategic re-evaluation of Israeli interests. As such, the policies that have so stirred the international community in recent weeks are not incidental byproducts that can be solved by technical fixes of the kind now being proposed, but rather are integral to Israel`s strategy. Even before June 2007, this system resulted in the creation of a `soft quarantine` that created substantial economic dislocation in Gaza and led to widespread flight of Gaza`s manufacturing base.
Hamas`s rout of Fateh in June 2007 only confirmed Israel`s policy of keeping Gaza on what Israeli official Dov Weissglass once cynically referred to as a `diet` (first announced in the wake of the Hamas January 2006 victory), and created an opportunity to gain international support for implementing it more broadly--by suspending indefinitely Gaza`s normal trade with Israel and lowering the bar to permit limited `humanitarian` imports, narrowly understood. It`s not as if the international community didn`t notice. Within weeks of the intensified Israeli embargo, the World Bank offered a critical view of the new status quo:
[T]he entry of humanitarian goods is a necessary but insufficient condition for the survival of the Gazan economy, which is already in dire straits after almost two years of restrictions. A sustainable solution must allow for imports and exports at the very least at levels similar to those pre-crisis which were already deemed insufficient and not meeting the minimum targets set in the AMA...the current restrictions on the entry of goods and services in and out of Gaza is not unique to July 2007. It has been underway since disengagement, and the Bank and others have quantified the impacts. As such, the pillars of Gaza`s economy have weakened over the years. Now, with a sustained closure on this current scale, they would be at risk of virtually irreversible collapse.
Limited and basic border operations enabling the transfer of goods from Israel to Hamas-controlled Gaza were functioning within days of the Hamas takeover. Three years on, these operations remain elementary, informal, unwritten, impermanent, and non- transparent. The official transit of goods exempted from the general ban--whether imports from abroad or from Israel/West Bank--is impossible, unless individual exceptions are granted by Israel.
Permitted goods enter Gaza in an environment that meets the minimum security and operational standards acceptable to the parties involved. This fact needs to be highlighted. Security issues related to the operation of Israel`s border with Gaza have been solved by Israel and Hamas. This limited and elementary system--in its security and operational dimensions, is working according to the standards set for it (primarily Israel) and it is evidence of the modus vivendi established between the interested parties, principally Israel and Hamas` security forces in control in Gaza.
This `system` has met the security and operational conditions established by Israel for the successful provision of basic humanitarian goods. To the extent that Israel is a party to practical cooperation with Hamas to ensure minimal border functionality, Israeli officials are adamant that this is a function of operational cooperation only and does not reflect any political reconsideration about the need to destroy Hamas. Hamas is prepared to cooperate in this effort--to demonstrate to Israel (and others) that it is the responsible security address in Gaza and to provide for its people. Ironically, the government in Gaza is the most ardent champion today of a liberal trade regime with Israel (and Egypt) and the party most interested to restore a variation of the status quo ante at both Karni and Rafah.
Israel has chosen to lower the bar that defines its responsibilities for the welfare of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip under the Fourth Geneva Convention, responsibilities which Israel`s own foreign ministry acknowledges that it retains despite disengagement. It treats Gaza as an `enemy state,` imposing pressures on Gaza which, had they been visited on the people of New York or Paris, would long ago have resulted in endemic anarchy and mayhem. That Gaza continues to function today is a testament not to Israel`s or the international community`s humanitarian impulses, but to the remarkable social cohesion of Palestinian society and, let us acknowledge the fact--to Hamas`s governing skills.
The United States needs to begin showing far greater creativity and boldness in breaking with the tactics of the Bush administration. President Obama will find it difficult if not impossible to achieve his stated goal, of two states equally free and equally secure, by continuing the failed policies that have led to the disaster of the Gaza Strip.
Geoffrey Aronson is the Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and editor of the Foundation`s report on Israeli Settlement Activities in the Occupied Territories. He is a consultant to the EUPOLCOPPS security mission in the West Bank and was a member of the World Bank team during Israel`s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2004-2005.