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Paris is a long way from Gaza

The Paris Peace Conference will focus on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That is because with greater and greater restrictions on movement, and by unraveling the ties that bind Palestinian society, Israel has effectively removed Gaza from the conversation. That is a terrible mistake.

By Tania Hary

Palestinian students study next to a lantern during a power outage in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 18, 2016. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinian students study next to a lantern during a power outage in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 18, 2016. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90) Thousands of Gazans took to the streets this week to protest ongoing blackouts.

This Sunday, senior diplomats and foreign ministers from 70 countries are expected to convene in Paris along with Palestinian officials to talk peace. According to reports, they’re expected to call on the parties to refrain from taking “unilateral steps that prejudge the outcome of final-status negotiations,” code for Israel to please refrain from building more settlements.

There aren’t any Israeli settlements left in Gaza, but for upwards of ten years now Israel has been taking one major unilateral step that pushes a sustainable solution to the conflict further and further away: the Strip’s painful isolation from the West Bank, and the world.

Ties connecting Palestinian society — academia, families, cultural institutions, civil society organizations, businesses and markets — are largely influenced by Israel’s policy on movement between Gaza and the West Bank. At least since the year 2000, and even more stringently since 2007, travel between the two areas of the Palestinian territory has ground to a minimum, a “humanitarian minimum” as Israel calls it. Humanitarian is nice, but it’s not the stuff of state-building.

Gaza’s isolation from the rest of the world, and particularly the West Bank, has resulted in dramatic increases in unemployment, poverty, dependence on aid, and of course instability.

What’s striking is that it has gone mostly unnoticed and is rarely discussed other than in the short periods during and immediately after each of the three major military operations that have occurred there in the past eight years. Even more noteworthy is that senior Israeli security officials often cite the situation in Gaza as running counter to Israel’s security interests.

But while most of the world, and those that will gather in Paris surely, continue focusing on the most glaring and physical incarnation of occupation — the settlements in the West Bank — the fragmentation of the Palestinian territory can’t be ignored. Neither too should the presence of Hamas nor of any action taken by any party to deliberately harm civilians. But the seemingly invisible and indiscernible reality of two million Palestinians being left outside of the discussion, and thus left behind, is both an abomination of morality and a tinder box.

Just this week, protests in Gaza were raging in response to even longer than usual power cuts. The Gaza Strip suffers a constant deficit of electricity supply: supply from all sources — power sold from Israel and Egypt and that produced at Gaza’s sole power plant — simply falls far short of demand. While the population of Gaza, and its electricity demand, has grown steadily for years, the supply has stayed the same.

What some people may not appreciate about Gaza is that demand is high because it’s a modern society. When the power blinks back on, young people rush to charge cell phones and laptops, families run laundry machines, factories run production lines, schools, universities and businesses are lit. Hospitals, which of course must ensure a steady supply of electricity to regular and neonatal intensive care units, purchase diesel in large quantities, from Israel, in order to run industrial generators that help them cope with the cuts.

The anger over the long power cuts that peaked this week is the anger of being forgotten, of being left behind, of knowing you have the potential to be a fully functioning society but watching helplessly while the rest of the world passes you by. It’s palpable at all times when one speaks to people from Gaza — the constant, grating buzz of generators, the frustration of disruptions to one’s work and daily life — but this week, society has experienced a collective snap and is taking to the streets. This time, the violence is raging inside, but for how long?

There are those in Israeli society who see it differently. Just recently, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett told CNN that there already is a Palestinian state, it’s called Gaza. According to Bennett and others who subscribe to the vision of annexing the West Bank or large portions of it, things in Gaza are going swimmingly, exactly according to plan.

In 2004, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s aide famously said that the disengagement from Gaza was formaldehyde for the peace process, or in other words, that isolating Gaza from the West Bank would kill any chance for peace, people didn’t really know what to do with it. Quietly, on the ground, by enforcing greater and greater movement restrictions and unraveling the ties that bind Palestinian society, that’s exactly what has happened: a slowly administered, lethal injection to the hope of a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Hamas and its rockets surely don’t help, but there are literally millions of civilians in Gaza Bennett and others hope you’ll continue to leave out of the equation.

Paris is a long way from Gaza but those participating in the peace conference there on Sunday should keep it in their minds instead of only focusing on what they can see with their eyes. Anything short of that isn’t worth the trip, even to that beautiful city of light.

Tania Hary is the executive director of Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.

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    1. Eliza

      Yes, the continuing blockade and the extent to which Israel controls the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza to the detriment of the people, remains off the radar. As does the legitimate rights of Palestinian refugees in neighbouring states.

      But given that the intent of Israel is to control and one day formerly annex as much W/B land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible and that this is where Israeli impetus is at the moment, it is understandable that Paris may concentrate on the Jewish only settlements. And if Paris does come up with a strong statement with some teeth re the W/B, it will still be a positive even if not perfect.

      Gaza and the refugees are not going to just disappear as Bennett and co wish. At some point, the international community (sans USA) will have to outline the minimum obligations of an occupying power towards those it occupies. The occupier is required to administer the occupied with benevolence and with an aim towards independence. That heat will someday bear down on Israel for its treatment of Gaza. Israel will not be able to indefinitely ignore this.

      The EU, as I understand it, is moving towards removing Hamas from its terrorist list. This must happen – and let’s not forget, the occupied have a right to resistance and the inclusion of violence is nothing more than a strategic decision. Its not as though the people of the West Bank have seen any benefit from pursuing non-violent resistance. So lets not get too moralistic regarding Hamas.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Lightbown

        Waiting for the international community to grow some balls and stand up to Israel is no answer to Gaza’s problems. Especially since the UN has predicted that Gaza will become uninhabitable by 2020, which is a mere three years away now.

        Israel has long coveted the territory that Gaza sits on. In 1949 Yigal Allon’s forces were on the point of pushing the Egyptian Army out of the Strip when the UK threatened to intervene militarily, and backed by the US forced Ben-Gurion to accept the armistice. In 1956 the Tsahal returned again, committing atrocities, and this time Ben-Gurion intended to stay. But this time Israel was forced to leave by Eisenhower. At the time of the conquest in 1967 Allon and others suggested that Israel should annex the territory, and indeed pressure was exerted to ‘encourage’ the residents to leave for the West Bank, but they wouldn’t go. How much longer can they hang on in there?

        The siege of Gaza serves no security purpose. It is the means of squeezing the people out from a small strip of land that Israel wants to annex, just as surely as it wants to annexe as much of the West Bank as possible. Those plans are closer to fruition in Gaza than they are in the West Bank which is why Gaza ought to be on the agenda in Paris. That it is not is yet another sop to Israel, and another indication that Europe’s leaders are still not ready to confront the realities on the ground in the Middle East.

        As another article reminded us recently, the annexation of Palestine could be closer than you think.

        Reply to Comment