What is the NGO report into the situation in Gaza?
- A group of international NGOs have published a report analysing the progress made since Israel announced steps to ease the restrictions on goods, materials and the movement of people into and out of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
- The report recognises that Israel’s new policy, approved by the Security Cabinet on 20 June 2010, has enabled an increase in the amount of goods and materials entering the strip. This includes:
- A “significant increase” in the amount of food stuffs that enter Gaza every day. There is a rise of up to 35% in imports, primarily food and consumer goods.
- An expansion of the operation of the Kerem Shalom border crossing: 183 trucks enter Gaza every day on average, up from 86 prior to easing.
- An increase in the amount of people allowed to exit the strip. There is a particular increase in the amount of permits issued to Gaza-based businesspeople.
- The report, however, criticises Israel for what it describes as insufficient progress and an inadequate implementation of the new easing policy. The report suggests that the existing restrictions impede economic growth and limit reconstruction efforts.
What has been Israel’s response?
- Import of goods: According to Israeli government sources, since the Cabinet’s decision, the number of truckloads entering the Gaza Strip every day via the Kerem Shalom Crossing has increased by 92%. Over 30% of goods entering Gaza are new products approved since July 2010. Despite the fact that Israel has increased the capacity so that 250 trucks could enter Gaza every day, the Palestinians themselves have not reached this capacity.
- Export of goods: Israel asserts that export from the Gaza Strip is intrinsically connected to security and logistical concerns at the Kerem Shalom Crossing. Israel has started a process of infrastructure renovation and development with the aim of widening the capacity of the crossing. This will conclude by mid-2011. Israel is also working closely with the Palestinian Authority Ministry for Civil Affairs to coordinate Palestinian monitoring presence in the border.
- Building materials: Over 1,000 truckloads of building material have entered Gaza since July 2010. The coordinator of Israel’s activity in the West Bank and Gaza (COGAT) noted that additional work is being conducted to ensure the flow of materials for private sector factories and companies.
- Construction projects: In a written comment to the NGOs report, COGAT noted that in coordination with the PA, Israel has approved 64 new construction projects in Gaza, 26 of these were projects for the UN refugee agency operating in Gaza (UNRWA).
What is the current situation in Gaza?
- Gaza has been under the complete control of Hamas since they violently expelled forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Hamas, a Palestinian radical Islamist group backed by Iran, poses a threat to Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. It has refused to accept the demands of the Quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia) to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
- Due to the threat of Hamas, both Israel and Egypt tightly restrict access through their respective borders. Israel also controls the airspace and coastline of Gaza.
- As a result of these restrictions, international aid agencies report extensive problems. The Gazan economy is very weak, and there are shortages of certain goods including building materials. Infrastructure, including power, sewage and water facilities, are in a poor state of repair. Many buildings damaged during Operation Cast Lead have not been repaired. There are also considerable strains on basic services including health and education. The delivery of services is greatly complicated by thedivision between the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
- The UN, World Bank and other international aid agencies operate extensively on the ground, often against extremehostility. The UN agency UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) alone employs more than 10,000 people to run internationally funded health, education and social services.
What is Israel’s border policy?
- After Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel declared the territory to be an ‘enemy entity’, and restricted goods entering and leaving Gaza through Israel. Nonetheless, Israel has always accepted that even though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and has frequently been under fire from militant groups inside Gaza, it retains a humanitarian responsibility to the Gazan population. Therefore, it always allowed international aid and basic commodities through its border. After the flotilla incident in May 2010, in which nine Turkish activists were killed, Israel changed its policy, to drop all import restrictions except for ‘dual-use’ goods which could be used for military purposes. Raw materials for construction are largely restricted to specific projects under the auspice of international aid agencies. Israel only allows exports via its border in isolated cases.
- Israel is not the only source of goods into Gaza. Whilst Egypt allows few goods to enter through its border, goods are smuggled through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
- Movement of people through Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt is limited. However, Israel facilitates requests via the PA in Ramallah to allow people from Gaza to receive medical treatment in Israel. During 2009, 6,000 medical patients and their dependents came into Israel for medical treatment.
What dilemmas do policy makers face with regard to Gaza?
- Policy makers in the West are rightly concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and frequently call for a change in policy. However, policy makers in Israel, and those in the West who support moderate Palestinians, need to balance humanitarian concerns in Gaza with concerns about the security and political implications of relaxing the restrictions. These complexities are often overlooked.
The security challenge
- Israel legitimately seeks to stop weapons being smuggled into Gaza. At the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, Israel received commitments from the US and EU leaders that the international community would support this endeavor. Whilst Hamas have largely been deterred from firing rockets at Israeli towns since Operation Cast Lead, rockets and mortars continue to be fired sporadically. Hamas and other militant groups have also made considerable effort to rearm with help from Iran. In November 2009, Hamas test fired a rocket with a range of 60km, capable of reaching Tel Aviv. In November 2009 Israel intercepted the Francop, a ship carrying more than 300 tonnes of rockets and other weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israel wants to stop such shipments reaching Gaza.
- Militants in Gaza do not only pose a threat to Israel. In the last few weeks the IDF has targeted militants in Gaza affiliated with global jihadi groups, believed to planning attacks on US targets in the Sinai Peninsula.
The political challenge
- Underlying the Hamas control of Gaza is a deep split between Hamas and the Palestinian secular nationalist Fatah faction led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Since Hamas violently expelled Fatah forces from Gaza, the two factions have been irreconcilable. Fatah have harshly clamped down on Hamas in the West Bank. One of the key divisions between the factions is that whilst Mahmoud Abbas’s position is for a negotiated two-state solution, Hamas reject peace with Israel and remain committed to violent ‘resistance’.
- Repeated attempts to reunify the Palestinians have failed. Hamas refused to sign a reconciliation agreement brokered by Egypt in October 2009 that would have paved the way to hold overdue Palestinian elections.
- Given this political reality, it is hard to ease restrictions on Gaza outside of the context of a Palestinian unity agreement, without it being seen as a victory for Hamas, and undermining the Palestinian Authority. There is a challenge, therefore, to balance the humanitarian responsibility to Gaza’s population with the desire not to strengthen Hamas’s regime.
- Israel is also concerned not to make concessions to Hamas whilst they continue to hold Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive in Gaza. Shalit was captured from inside Israel in 2006 and has been held with no outside contact for four and a half years. This is an issue of enormous concern to the Israeli public and politicians.