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Sustainable development needs a complete lifting of the siege
Interview with Omar Shaban
bitterlemons: Has there been any tangible change in Gaza since Israel announced an easing of its blockade?
Shaban: There is a difference, but the question is how much. Compared to the three weeks before the flotilla, yes, there is a difference. But considering that the entire siege is illegal, there is no difference.
bitterlemons: When you say there is a difference, what do you mean?
Shaban: UNRWA has started to receive some construction materials. It`s not much and it`s still early to really measure the results. Second, some other items have been allowed in, again, not that many and there`s not that big a difference.
bitterlemons: What does Gaza need?
Shaban: Gaza needs the whole siege to be lifted. Gaza needs all crossings to be operating fully for two years just to make up for what has happened in the past three years and to cater to natural growth. Gaza needs two to three million tons of cement and 600,000 tons of steel just to rebuild the damage that has been wrought here in the past few years.
bitterlemons: In terms of sustainable development...?
Shaban: Gaza needs free movement. We need to export, people need to be able to travel, to make business, and people need to be able to come to Gaza. Banks need to be able to operate normally and cash needs to be injected.
Israel has made much of the fact that there is no starvation in Gaza. But the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not about food. People don`t live on food alone. The humanitarian crisis is about education, it`s about development, about imprisonment; it`s about a cultural and physical siege and isolation. There is no starvation in Gaza, but 90 percent of Gazans cannot feed themselves. That is a humanitarian crisis.
bitterlemons: Will the easing lead to any concrete change in Gaza?
Shaban: Yes, it will. On reconstruction, for example, even if it has to go through UNRWA and other international agencies, it will create jobs and cause some economic activity. There are other, desperately needed projects that may finally happen, like repairs to the waste treatment network and some water projects. So something positive will come out of it.
But this is not enough. As Palestinians we have to encourage this development and demand continuity. But sustainable development needs a complete lifting of the siege. There is a danger that Gazans are becoming completely aid dependent. If the siege is kept in any form and only United Nations and other international agencies work, private industry will not be able to function, individuals will not be able to build their own houses, and industry will not operate, leaving all of Gaza dependent on either cash aid or in-kind assistance.
bitterlemons: With this easing of the blockade, are you worried that pressure on Israel to lift the blockade will end?
Shaban: This seems to be the Israeli strategy. Israel wants to make cosmetic changes to the siege to convey a message to the international community that the situation is different. This will ease the pressure on Israel. People need to understand that at the end of the day, the siege remains, even if in a different form.
bitterlemons: So how can Palestinians work to maintain pressure on Israel?
Shaban: Palestinians need to continue to talk about the siege, but they have to broaden the concept. There is a problem in the Palestinian narrative that when we talk about the siege we follow the Israeli narrative and limit the concept to food. But people need to understand that the boycott is about everything, about the freedom to travel and work. People don`t only have a need for food, they have a need for education, entertainment and culture.
bitterlemons: What is Egypt`s role in the boycott?
Shaban: Egypt is in the middle. Cairo can`t open Rafah completely, because it is a signatory, with the US and Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, to the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. On the other hand, 1.5 million people in Gaza see Egypt as the only point of access to the rest of the world. Cairo is trying to find a balance, but it is in a dilemma: it can`t open Rafah and it can`t close it.
bitterlemons: How important is Palestinian unity in any attempt at sending an effective message?
Shaban: It`s very important, but some people don`t see it that way. Some are looking at this from a very narrow perspective, whether in Gaza or Ramallah, and it is hard to see where reconciliation will come from any time soon.-
[Omar Shaban is head of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a Gaza based think-tank.]
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