BICOM Briefing: Israeli policy on access to Gaza update

Key points

  • Israel’s policy on its border with Gaza is determined by both security and political considerations. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and is still holding kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel does not want to act in a way that will enable Hamas to reap political reward from its control of Gaza or that would undermine the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. In addition, Israel fears Hamas may use imported materials, including construction materials, for military purposes.
  • Despite security threats, Israel facilitates the flow of goods including food, medical supplies, educational material and agricultural materials through its border into Gaza. There is no limit on the quantity of essential commodities allowed.
  • At the same time, Israel’s policy is not to operate normal trade relations with the Hamas regime. Therefore Israel restricts the type of goods and materials that enter from Israel.

What is Israel’s response to boats attempting to reach Gaza?

  • A flotilla of eight cargo and passenger ships sailing from Ireland, Turkey, Sweden and Greece, are heading towards the Gaza Strip carrying hundreds of international activists as well as some 10,000 tons ofconstructionmaterial,medical equipmentandschool supplies. It is expected to approach the Gaza coast before the weekend. The flotilla has been jointly organised by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and the Free Gaza organisation.
  • The Israeli navy enforces a 20-nautical mile closure of the sea off Gaza, to prevent maritime smuggling of weapons and other materials to Hamas. The Israeli Navy is preparing to stop the flotilla and redirect it to the Israeli port of Ashdod. Israel routinely facilitates the passage of international humanitarian aid to Gaza through its border and it is reported that Israel had proposed to allow the supplies from the flotilla to be delivered in the same way.

What is the situation in the Gaza Strip?

  • Gaza has been under the complete control of Hamas since they violently expelled forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Hamas, backed by Iran, poses a threat to Israel, Egypt and the moderate Palestinian camp. Due to this, both Israel and Egypt tightly restrict access through their respective borders. Israel also controls the airspace and coastline.
  • As a result of these restrictions, international aid agencies report extensive problems. The Gazan economy is very weak, and there are severe shortages of certain goods including building materials. Infrastructure, including power, sewage and water facilities, are in a poor state of repair. Three-quarters of 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 the division 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 extreme hostility. The UN agency UNRWA alone employs more than 10,000 people to run internationally funded health, education and social services.

What goods enter Gaza from Israel?

  • Israel accepts that even though it withdrew from Gaza, and considers Gaza under the rule of Hamas to be an ‘enemy entity’, it still has a humanitarian responsibility to the population. Israel, therefore, allows international aid and basic commodities through its border.
  • There is no limit on the quantity of essential commodities entering Gaza from Israel, only on types of goods. Goods that routinely enter include food, medical supplies, educational materials/stationary, cleaning supplies, agricultural materials, animal feed and livestock. Israel also supplies commercial fuel for the power station and cooking fuel. In addition Israel has responded to specific needs and requests from international aid agencies. For example, due to fears of a swine flu outbreak, three Israeli hospitals were assigned to treat cases from Gaza and over 44,500 immunisation kits weretransferred to the territory. In November 2009, Israel facilitated thousands of cattle to be shipped into Gaza for the Muslim festivals of Ramadam and Eid al-Adha. In the past few months, materials have entered to facilitate water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure repairs. In 2009, 127 trucks containing more than 3,000 tons ofhypochlorite entered the Gaza Strip for water purification purposes. Moreover, in the same year, 48 trucks of equipment for improving the sanitation infrastructureled to a substantial reduction in the Beit Lahya facility’s waste levels.
  • Figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show that in 2009, 30,920 trucks containing 800,000 tons of supplies weretransferred to Gaza. From January to May 2010, over 94,500 ton of supplies were transferred in 10,967 trucks.
  • Israel is not the only source of goods into Gaza. Whilst Egypt allows hardly any goods to enter through its border, much of what enters Gaza today is smuggled through sophisticated tunnel networks underneath the Gaza-Egypt border. Hamas has its own tunnels for smuggling weapons, and charges a fee to private businessmen to dig commercial tunnels. Egypt is in the process of erecting a metal underground wall along its border with Gaza to prevent smuggling through these tunnels.
  • Whilst the quantities of basic goods that enter Gaza from Israel fluctuate, this is linked in part to demand, which is also affected by the supply from the smuggling tunnels. A UN report in October 2009 suggested that one reason the quantities of certain materials entering from Israel had declined was ‘market saturation’.
  • Israel regularly allows Palestinians to leave the Gaza strip for emergency medical care and grants permits for patients who require advanced medical treatment not available in the territory. For instance, from 9 May to 14 May, 781 medical patients and accompanying individuals from theGaza Strip crossed into Israel for medical treatment. In total, during 2009, 6,000 medical patients and their dependence came into Israel for medical treatment. This figure represents an 80 percent success rate of all individuals who requested medical treatment outside of Gaza.
  • Israel has also provides medical equipment and supplies to improve healthcare in the territory. From January to March 2010, 1,068 tons of medicineand medical equipment were transferred in 152 trucks. In 2009 a CT imaging system, and equipment for amammography machine where transferred to the Red Cross Hospital in Gaza. During the first quarter of 2010 four trucks with special suppliesfor a project of the Al Quds hospital were transferred to the Gaza Strip,and an additional 13 trucks are scheduled to cross.

Why are there restrictions on the Israel-Gaza border?

  • The Gaza Strip is under the complete control of Hamas. They are able to manage what passes through the borders for their own political and military purposes. Israel’s policy on its border with Gaza is determined by both security and political considerations.
  • On a political level, Israel balances its humanitarian responsibility to Gaza’s population with its desire not to take actions that will strengthen Hamas’s regime and undermine the moderate Palestinian camp, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in the West Bank. Israel is also concerned not to make concessions to Hamas whilst they continue to hold Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive. Israel therefore restricts the range of goods that it allows to be imported into Gaza, and has only allowed exports via its border in isolated cases. Israel is aware that Hamas is able to divert goods that enter to its own supporters. In February 2009, UNRWA temporarily suspended aid shipments into Gaza after an aid consignment was confiscated by Hamas.
  • On a security level, Israel is also extremely wary of allowing the entry of dual-use materials that could be misused by Hamas. A Human Rights Watch report in August 2009 noted that steel pipes and fertiliser have been used in the production of rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants. Cement is used by Hamas for its military infrastructure.
  • Since Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has been rearming with help from Iran. In November 2009 Hamas test fired a rocket in with a range of 60km, capable of reaching Tel Aviv. In Israel there are fears of weapons shipments reaching Hamas from Iran. In November 2009, Israel intercepted the cargo ship Francop, carrying 320 tons of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
  • Operating the border crossings themselves poses security risks for Israel. There were several terror attacks on the crossing points in 2008. At the fuel terminal at Nahal Oz, for example, two Israeli workers were killed in April 2008. Security threats to the terminal have forced operations to be shifted to an alternative facility at Kerem Shalom crossing point.
  • Hamas has recently taken steps to restrict who enters Israel from Gaza. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) recently condemned Hamas for creating a new obligation for individuals to obtain permission from the Hamas controlled Ministry of Interior in Gaza before they can travel. According to PCHR, on 7 December 2009, 37 patients and their companions were prevented from leaving Gaza because they had failed to obtain the new exit permits.

Political background

  • In 2005, Israel withdrew all civilian and military presence from Gaza in an attempt to create grounds for Palestinian sovereignty without Israeli control.
  • The Agreement on Movement and Access was established in November 2005, creating a framework for greatly advancing movement and access in Gaza and the West Bank, including the import and export of goods and the movement of people.
  • Implementation of the Agreement on Movement and Access became impossible after the election of Hamas in January 2006. Rocket attacks from Gaza against Israeli civilians greatly increased after the election of Hamas. After Hamas violently expelled forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas from Gaza In June 2007, they strengthened their hold on Gaza and increased their arsenal. In the first four months of 2008 there was a rocket or mortar fired at Israel on average every three and a half hours. Though the numbers of rockets and mortars fired has reduced considerably since Israel conducted Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, Hamas continues to rearm.

Under what circumstances might the situation change?

  • Both Israel and Egypt are likely to remain reluctant to relax the restrictions on Gaza whilst the Hamas regime remains in place. Israel demands that Hamas meet the conditions of the Quartet by recognising Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previous agreements.
  • Egypt has offered to open its Rafah border crossing if Hamas agrees to sign a unity agreement with Fatah, but finding agreement between Hamas and Fatah has proven elusive.
  • Israel is keen to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian moderate camp, and to avoid steps that will strengthen Hamas, especially in the delicate context of renewed indirect negotiations. Israel is also reluctant to ease its restrictions without a deal to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
  • Either a deal to bring about the release of Shalit, or a change in the policy of Hamas could bring a change in the political climate that might improve the situation in Gaza.

The West Bank: An example of cooperation and growth

  • Since the split between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2007, the international community has sought to support moderate Palestinians in the West Bank, and not the Hamas regime in Gaza. The Israeli government is seeking to promote Palestinian economic development in the West Bank, in the belief that this will undermine extremism and create a more conducive environment for peace. Israeli restrictions on movement and access in the West Bank have been eased considerably promoting considerable economic growth, reaching 7 percent in 2009. Additionally, Tourism to Bethlehem, which doubled to 1 million in 2008, increased to nearly 1.5 million in 2009.

       Further Reading

For more analysis and information, see the ‘Spotlight’ section of our website, Gaza facts and analysis, and our FAQs.