BICOM Briefing: Israeli policy on access to Gaza


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.
  • 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 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 controls the airspace and coastline.
  • As a result of the restrictions, international aid agencies report extensive problems. The economy is very weak, and there are severe shortages of certain goods including building materials. Infrastructure, including power, sewage and water facilities, is in a poor state of repair. Existing problems were exacerbated by damage caused by Operation Cast Lead. Many houses and buildings that were damaged remain unrepaired. There are considerable strains on basic services including health and education. 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. 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 trade in 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. Israel recently allowed the transfer of Swine Flu vaccines, masks and medications into Gaza. In November, Israel facilitated thousands of cattle to be shipped into Gaza for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. In the past few months, materials have entered to facilitate water, sewage, and electrical infrastructure repairs. In July, Israel authorised hundreds of tonnes of cement and building materials to support UN-sponsored construction projects.
  • Figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show that the total amount of materials transferred into the Gaza Strip from Israel in 2009 up to the end of November (not including fuel) was 28,431 truckloads, compared to 26,838 trucks for the whole on 2008. Of 64,000 tonnes of goods that entered Gaza from Israel in November, 89% was private sector trade and 11% was international aid.
  • Israel is not the only source of goods into Gaza. Whilst Egypt allows hardly any goods to enter though its border, much of what enters Gaza today is smuggled though tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. This includes a wide range of goods not allowed through the Israeli border, including weaponry. It was recently reported that Egypt is erecting a metal wall along its border with Gaza in an attempt to prevent smuggling through the tunnels.
  • Whilst the quantities of basic goods that enter Gaza from Israel have fluctuated over the past year, this is linked to demand, which is also affected by the supply from the smuggling tunnels. A UN report in October suggested that one reason the quantities of certain materials entering from Israel had declined was ‘market saturation’.
  • From the beginning of the year to November 16, 4000 medical patients accompanied by 3600 escorts had passed through the border into Israel for medical treatment. Some traders also have special dispensation to enter Israel to organise imports of goods. 18500 permits had been granted for Palestinians to leave Gaza and enter Israel or travel overseas in 2009.

Total goods entering Gaza from Israel (excluding fuel)

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 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, 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 in a 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 can also be 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.
  • 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, 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.

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 accept 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 with Palestinian elections now due. 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 Palestinian unity agreement leading to new Palestinian elections in Gaza and the West Bank, 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. In mid-2009, the IMF estimated that if easing of restrictions continued, economic growth in the West Bank for 2009 could reach 7%.

Further Reading

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