As internal Palestinian rifts take a heavy toll on Gazans and as shifting geopolitics in the Gulf affect quality of life in Deir al-Balah, Israel is again missing an opportunity to harness the future of its relationship with Gaza.
By Amir Rotem
The ceasefire agreement that ended Operation Protective Edge went into effect on August 26, 2014. The operation was the deadliest and most devastating in Gaza to date, taking the lives of 2,202 Gaza residents, including 1,391 people deemed to be civilians and 526 of whom were children. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and six civilians, Israelis and foreign nationals, were also killed, including one child. Some 11,000 housing units in Gaza were entirely destroyed, and approximately 160,000 more damaged. Tens of thousands of people were made homeless. So much destruction and pain, and yet nothing has really changed.
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From Israel’s perspective, the massive destruction made evident one uncomfortable truth: the policy of closure on Gaza had failed, its goals had not been achieved. A public opinion survey commissioned by Gisha earlier this year shows that two-thirds of the public in Israel believes Israel’s policy in Gaza has only undermined security.
When the fighting ended, Israel declared that it would change its course. The full ban on the sale of goods from Gaza in its natural, closest markets, the West Bank and Israel, was partially lifted; the quota for travel permits granted to traders and business people was increased; jump starting Gaza’s economy, and giving its residents a horizon of hope, were topics of conversation in internal discussions and international fora. Key figures in Israel’s military and political echelons have since repeatedly declared that residents of the Gaza Strip are not the enemy, and that Israel has an interest in promoting Gaza’s reconstruction and improving living conditions for its residents. “We’re entering a period of assisting the reconstruction,” said then IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. “There are 120,000 homeless people in the Gaza Strip following the operation. They have paid a heavy price,” said then Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, in October 2014.
Reality stands in stark opposition to these declarations. In the three years that have passed, the Rafah Crossing, between Gaza and Egypt, has remained closed for most of the time, leaving the Erez Crossing, between Gaza and Israel, the sole gateway into and out of Gaza. The number of exits of Palestinians through this crossing puts the closure into even sharper perspective: after the ceasefire, the categories for travel through Erez were slightly expanded, and some restrictions were symbolically “eased.”
Since 2016, however, the trend has shifted. The average number of exits through Erez has dropped sharply, reaching 6,683 in June 2017 – about half the monthly average in 2016 and slightly less than the 6,704 exits recorded in May 2014, shortly before the operation began. The gesture of introducing a weekly quota for travel to Friday prayers in Jerusalem was revoked in December 2016. The number of people holding trader permits was dramatically reduced, reaching a mere 887 in early August, compared with the 3,600 permit holders in late 2015. Even the patently humanitarian issue of medical patients exiting Gaza for medical treatments that are unavailable in the Strip is gradually being restricted, with Israel’s rate of approval of travel permits dropping by about 50 percent.
A similar picture emerges from figures relating to the only commercial gateway into and out of Gaza, the Kerem Shalom Crossing. In June 2015, 113 trucks transporting goods destined for the West Bank, Israel and abroad, left through the crossing. In June 2017, the same number of trucks exited Gaza, and in July, only 92. After hostilities ended in 2014, the marketing of goods produced in Gaza to the West Bank was allowed to resume, following a seven-year prohibition. In 2015, limited marketing in Israel of two types of vegetables, scrap metal, and furniture, were also allowed. The figures for 2017 point to an alarming stagnation. The once-promising signs of change that were publicly encouraged by top Israeli officials never actually managed to create real economic improvement. The figures on goods entering Gaza are just as bleak. The initial increase in trucks entering Gaza is largely explained by the entrance of construction materials, mostly intended for reconstruction after the massive damage caused during the hostilities. Private consumption in the Strip has not increased at all, and the entry of many items required for trade, industry and construction is delayed for long periods of time.
Many of the housing units damaged in the hostilities have been repaired, but only about half the houses that were totally destroyed have been or are being rebuilt. Still, no funding has been secured for the reconstruction of a third of the homes destroyed, meaning a third of the families who were made homeless still have no home to return to, nor will they have one in the foreseeable future.
Gaza’s water and energy infrastructure fell far short of meeting demand even before Protective Edge, and the gap has only grown wider over recent years. Then Israel acceded to the Palestinian Authority’s request to reduce payment for Gaza electricity by 40 percent and the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cut the salaries of tens of thousands of its employees in the Strip and force thousands of others into early retirement. These actions join many of Israel’s practices that cause direct harm to the residents of Gaza: reduction of travel permits through Erez, further restrictions on exiting the Strip, spraying of herbicides that damage crops near the border fence, firing live ammunition at fishermen and confiscating their boats, and reducing electricity supply in response the Palestinian Authority’s request to reduce payment. This last measure has left the entire Strip without power for most of the day and night. Three years after vicious fighting gave way to a broad consensus regarding the need for reconstruction and development – as an Israeli security interest as well – Gaza is once more at the very edge of an abyss.
At this moment in time, when the internal Palestinian rift is taking a heavy toll on Gaza residents and when shifting loyalties in the Gulf impact the quality of life of families in Deir al-Balah, Israel is again missing an opportunity to harness the future of its relationship with Gaza. This is something Israel must do, either way: The extensive control it continues to wield over countless aspects of life in Gaza brings with it the obligations of an occupying power – responsibilities to see to it that the population be able to lead a life of dignity. The arbitrary, punitive and elusive permit regime is not a policy. The government openly admits to having no strategic policy when it comes to Gaza, other than the futile ambition of removing two million Palestinians from the demographic equation, cutting them off from their families in the West Bank, tearing apart Palestinian society and sentencing the Palestinian economy to a tailspin of de-development.
The permit regime is largely unrelated to Israel’s security needs and does not reflect the public statements made by decision-makers. This strategic void, this evasion of responsibility, means Israel is sentencing Gaza residents to a life of ever-growing suffering in a strip of land that will soon be uninhabitable, while at the same time, sentencing its own people to repeated cycles of bloodshed. All this takes place while solutions are possible and available. The future could be completely different.
Amir Rotem is the director of Gisha’s public department.