By Mya Guarnieri
Athens, Greece – The second Freedom Flotilla is slated to set sail by the end of the month in an attempt to challenge the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The act will call attention to the closure that the United Nations and human rights organizations have decried as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the collective punishment of civilians.
According to the Israeli government — and most of the mainstream media — the blockade began in 2007, following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. The aim of this “economic warfare” was to weaken Hamas, a group that the Israeli government had once supported. Israel also sought to stop rocket fire and to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in Gaza since 2006.
Four years on, none of these goals have been achieved.
Israel has achieved a minor victory on one front, however. Even critics use 2007 as the start-date of the blockade, unintentionally legitimizing Israel’s cause-and-effect explanation that pegs the closure to political events.
But the blockade did not begin in 2007, following the Hamas takeover of the Strip. Nor did it start in 2006, with Israel’s economic sanctions against Gaza. The hermetic closure of Gaza is the culmination of a process that began twenty years ago.
Punitive closures begin
Sari Bashi is the founder and director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement. She says that the gradual closure of Gaza began in 1991, when Israel canceled the general exit permit that allowed most Palestinians to move freely through Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Non-Jewish residents of Gaza and the West Bank were required to obtain individual permits.
This was during the First Intifada. While the mere mention of the word invokes the image of suicide bombers in the Western imagination, it’s important to bear in mind that the First Intifada was, by and large, a non-violent uprising comprised of civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotts of Israeli goods.
A wave of violence came, however, in 1993. It was then, Bashi explains, that Israel began closing some crossings temporarily, turning away even those who held exit permits. Because a tremendous majority of Palestinians are not and were not suicide bombers, the restrictions on movement constituted collective punishment for the actions of a few — foreshadowing the nature of the blockade to come.
Over the years, there were other suggestions that a hermetic, punitive closure was on the horizon. The beginning of the Second Intifada, in September of 2000, saw Palestinian students “banned from traveling from Gaza to the West Bank,” Bashi says. In general, travel between the Occupied Palestinian Territories came under increasing restrictions, as well.
Exports took a hit in 2003, with the sporadic closures of the Karni crossing. While the 2005 disengagement supposedly signaled the end of the occupation of Gaza, in reality, it brought ever tightening restrictions on the movement of both people and goods. And, in 2006, the few Gazans who were still working in Israel were banned from entering, cutting them off from their jobs at a time when the Strip’s economy was under even more pressure.
Gaza today: the economy has been driven into the ground. The unemployment rate is almost 50 percent and four out of every five Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on humanitarian aid. Hospitals are running out of supplies. The chronically ill cannot always get exit permits, which can lead to access-related deaths. Students are sometimes prevented from reaching their universities. Families have been shattered. Some psychologists say that the intense pressure created by the blockade – which was compounded during Operation Cast Lead – accounts for spikes in domestic violence, divorce and drug abuse.
It doesn’t end at Gaza’s borders
But the consequences of the blockade do not stop at Gaza’s borders. When movement restrictions began in 1991, some Palestinian day laborers were prevented from reaching their jobs inside Israel. And this is about the time that Israel, already hooked on low-cost labor, began issuing work visas to migrants from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
Fast forward to Israel, 2009 — the same state that is imposing a severe, hermetic closure of Gaza announces that it intends to deport 1,200 Israeli-born children of migrant workers, along with their parents. NGOs decry the expulsion as inhumane and a gross violation of human rights.
The standard Israeli line is that these people must be deported because they’re “illegal.” (Never mind that the Israeli Supreme Court has recently struck down the policy that made the mothers lose their legal status, calling it a violation of Israel’s own labor laws). Politicians who are more honest about the issue admit that the expulsion is about minimizing the “demographic threat” to Israel.
The message of both the blockade and deportation is the same — both serve to illustrate that Jewish-Israeli privilege comes at the expense of the human rights of anyone who is deemed an “other.”
The refugee crisis
Of course, if you were to ask a Gazan when the restrictions on freedom of movement began, some might go back even earlier. They might point to a 1984 order that forbade farmers from planting commercial quantities of fruit trees without permission of the Israeli military government. In a definitive piece on the economic de-development of the Gaza Strip, published in 1987, Dr. Sara Roy pointed out that it took some Palestinian farmers five years or more to obtain these permits.
While the people of Gaza were still able to move in and out of the Strip at the time, their ability to live freely on their own lands was already severely restricted — as was their economy. According to Dr. Roy, the occupation had rendered the Strip hopelessly dependent on Israel and vulnerable to its economic fluctuations and political whims. It had also created a captive market, a convenient dumping ground for Israeli goods.
But, as Dr. Roy points, Gaza’s economic woes didn’t begin with the occupation. They started with the sudden, unexpected influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948. The Gaza Strip was largely agricultural at the time, she explains, and wealth was consolidated into the hands of a few. Simply said, there wasn’t enough for everyone.
While organizers of the flotilla emphasize that they are attempting to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, unpacking the blockade itself points to urgent questions that must be resolved: the status of Palestinian refugees; the disastrous and unrelenting effects of over 40 years of occupation; and Israel’s utter lack of respect for the human rights of non-Jews. And that’s the discussion the Israeli government doesn’t want any of us to have.
Mya Guarnieri is a Tel Aviv-based writer and journalist. She is covering the flotilla for Maan News Agency. Her articles have appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Guardian, Tablet, and many other international outlets. Her short stories have been published in The Kenyon Review Online and Narrative Magazine. She is currently working on a book about migrant workers in Israel.
Follow Mya on Twitter: @myaguarnieri