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When security isn't enough: Separating Gaza and the West Bank

When the Dutch prime minister offered a way to safely transport goods from Gaza to the West Bank, Prime Minister Netanyahu made sure to put the kibosh on the plan. Why? Because. That’s just the way it is. Security reasons.

By Itamar Sha’altiel

Palestinian youth on a cart in the no-go zone along the Gaza-Israel border fence, February 14, 2012 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

You may have read in Haaretz that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the Dutch prime minister this week to explain a few things about Israel’s national security. Maybe you didn’t quite understand why this is a story. That’s not surprising. The story is Gaza, and it’s a story that doesn’t make it to the news too much. So, if you’re interested, and you should be, here’s a little context:

Try to imagine an economy without exports. It’s not self-contained, because it does not really supply all its own needs. It is simply an economic entity that sells almost no goods outside its territory – a large-scale economic experiment. That’s what the Gaza Strip is today.

Why is this the case?

The only crossing used for transporting goods outside of Gaza is Kerem Shalom, which is controlled by Israel. Israel allows goods to exit Gaza, but only if they are not sold in the West Bank or inside Israel itself. Goods that exit Gaza are transported on Israeli soil, and shipped to Europe via the Ashdod seaport. Goods exit Gaza, get shipped through Israel and the West Bank to Jordan. Goods are transported to Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel and flown to the USA. These same goods cannot be sold here, or in the West Bank. Why? It’s unclear. The only reason Israel has given is the “separation policy,” i.e., separating and distinguishing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from one another. What are the reasons for this policy? Well, it depends who you ask. Who conceived and implemented this policy? Unclear. When? Unknown. Why? Because.

Why is this important?

Because before the closure, 85 percent of the goods shipped out of Gaza, were sold in Israel and the West Bank. These are the main markets for Gaza’s products. European markets are too far, and the cost of shipping is very high. In fact, it is so high that the Dutch are funding about half the agricultural products chosen to be part of the European export project. It’s more of a humanitarian project than an export project, and it looks like it too. Before the closure, 1,064 trucks left Gaza every month. In October, only 10 trucks left. Ten trucks in an entire month.

So what does an almost export-less economy look like?

Like this: 32.5 percent unemployment in the third quarter of 2013. Before the closure, 400 farmers grew strawberries. Ahead of 2011, there were only 75. In 2007, 150 farmers grew sweet peppers. Ahead of 2011, the number dropped to 13. Only 13 farmers in an area that has a population of 1.7 million. There are more figures. We could talk about that 51 percent or so of factories in the Gaza Strip which are either entirely out of commission or operating at half capacity or less (this is a 2010 figure, the situation has likely gotten worse). We could talk about people, usually children, who collect gravel in the “buffer zone”, risking getting shot by the Israeli army, because they have no other work. But never mind, you get the point.

Now, The Netherlands has decided to do something about this export ban. If there are security problems, the Dutch said, we’ll buy a new scanner for the Kerem Shalom crossing that can check the goods shipped out of Gaza. The Dutch hoped that Israel would then withdraw its objection to the sale of Gaza-made goods in the West Bank. Millions of Euros and over a year of work went into this project, and the scanner has changed nothing. Israel still refuses to allow the sale of Gaza goods in the West Bank, giving no reasons.

So, the prime minister meets with the Dutch prime minister, and instead of explaining why this ban is in place he says: “You have to understand that sometimes it gets abused.” He doesn’t explain how. He just gives the tunnel as an example. What does the tunnel have to do with it? Unclear. Why does Israel allow goods from Gaza to be shipped through its territory, but doesn’t let the same goods be sold in the West Bank? Unclear. That’s just the way it is. Security reasons.

So this is the context. You’re welcome to decide for yourselves if Netanyahu’s explanations are convincing. I’m not convinced. Israel has real security problems when it comes to the Gaza Strip (and the Palestinians in general). There are real risks and real challenges, but Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon cynically use them to justify a policy that was never explained to the public and that no one has ever taken responsibility for – a policy that looks a little too much like collective punishment.

And nobody’s talking about it. It’s too complicated. It’s Gaza. And besides, we left Gaza, so what do you want from us anyway? It’s Egypt’s problem.

Itamar Sha’altiel is the new media director at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.

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    1. Abraham Bruck

      If Egypt does not want to have anything to do with Gaza, why Should Israel? What do the Egyptians know that the Dutch don’t want to acknowledge?

      Let the Dutch have / handle Gaza!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Haifawi

      Maybe it’s just the cynic in me, but why do I feel like the ‘separation policy’ is designed to implement Ariel Sharon’s (yimakh shemo v’zikhro) master-stroke of creating 2 separate Palestinian geopolitical entities and thus ensuring that there would never be pressure on Israel to find a solution since they only negotiate with one.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        The separation policy is designed to isolate Hamas. It is the same policy Egypt pursues vis-a-vis Hamas.

        Reply to Comment
      • Naftali Greenwood

        Sharon didn’t need to “create” the separation. It’s a constant that Oslo attempted to paper over by referring to the separate lands at issue, with their very different populations, as “the territory” in the singular.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Danny

      Divide and conquer. Israel wants Gaza and the West Bank to have absolutely no connection whatever, especially economically. Israel wants Gaza to disappear – literally. Israel wants the world to forget Gaza even exists.

      Divide and conquer has always been the M.O. with respect to the Palestinians. It’s the reason Israel helped create Hamas in the first place.

      Divide and conquer, circa 2013. Just business as usual.

      Reply to Comment
    4. If you don’t allow imports into Gaza, export money will have limited effect; money needs to circulate to be effective. If the money supply increases without a greater supply of goods, inflation results. The Israeli State, I guess, doesn’t want to seed a situation where, after allowing exports, they face demand for allowing imports. Clamp down on all demands, so nothing changes. While Egypt might be more inclined to open transit given more Gazan cash, the Israelis see all uncontrolled imports and dangerous. So, again, satisfy no demands.

      Since all Gazans are Hamas, exports support terrorism. Israel cannot be allowed to purchase such goods, nor can West Bank Palestinians who would thereby be moving towards a shift to Hamas. Hamas is a virus that must be quarantined. I’m actually a bit surprised Israel allows export transit at all, but power has its whims.

      Hamas affirmed the suicide bombings of 2000-6. It then won controlling election to the PA Legislative Council. It will never be forgiven. This isn’t even collective punishment, for the majority of Gazans are not Hamas, they are simply trying to live. These Gazans are seen as carriers of infection, unfortunate casualties in what amounts to a biological war. This logic exists on both sides of the divide; but its resulting cruelty is overwhelmingly experienced by only one side. But remember the bombings. They are still with us to this day.

      Reply to Comment
    5. John Turnbull

      Israel and Egypt have every right to close off their borders. They don’t have the right to close of Palestine’s borders.

      Produce could be shipped economically from Gaza if the port of Gaza, constructed with Dutch aid, had not been destroyed by the IDF.

      Air freight and passengers could travel freely if the airport had not been bombed.

      This issue is “complicated” because it’s also ridiculous. Lift the air and naval blockade. If Israel and Egypt want to protect themselves, let them engage in trade. Otherwise, they can look after their own interests by whatever legal means suits their paranoia.

      Reply to Comment
    6. jjj

      The answer is right under the nose.
      But you find the fault at Israeli (indeed faulty, due to other reasons) policy.

      Security is a major concern, and your disregard to it shows how poorly you understand the situation.
      So, to bring up some missing knowledge, here’s the deal:
      1. Exporting to west-bank would be used to convey arms, missiles, explosives, etc.
      2. Exporting to Israel – well, that’s rather obvious…

      Hamas had repeatedly and cyniucally (ab)used humantiarian causes for terrorist activities, such as using ambulance cars, hospitals, children, and every now and then shooting/bombing/killing Israeli’s on the Kerem Shalom side of the border.

      In short, the answer is Hamas.
      And the misery of the (mostly) innoccent Gazans is cynically used by it.

      And there’s a simple solution to it to. Let Hamas recognize Israel, or at most, declare the end of hostilities, arming to the teeth with missiles, and threathening to destroy Israel and the Israeli’s.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Wrong. The closure between the West Bank and Gaza has nothing to do with security, since the Dutch government was willing to pay for sophisticated scanning equipment that would make the smuggling of weapons impossible. The reason is 100% political – it is Israel’s desire to disengage from Gaza while maintaining its stranglehold on the West Bank.

        Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        Umm…you do realize that the exports that go abroad travel THROUGH Israel and the West Bank, and even go on Israeli PLANES.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Average American

      Why doesn’t Israel want Gaza while it does want West Bank? I don’t understand that. Why isn’t it taking over Gaza as it is West Bank?

      Does Israel WANT Hamas in Gaza, to justify Israel’s militarism, to prove there is a threat to Israel (from poorly made and poorly aimed weak little rockets)? To have an enemy to fight, to maintain its tough image to its people, to justify all these martial law “security” policies?

      Why not take Gaza as it is taking West Bank? Poof, problem goes away. If Israel really wants it to go away.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Yaron

      Stop your conspiracy theories and don’t judge too early. The scanner is not a gift to Gaza, but to Israel. The Dutch developed and built it in collaboration with Israeli authorities which have outlined their own requirements. What sick minds would think that Israel would profit from a miserable Gaza? The only fact that stands is that the Gaza regime is utterly and clearly hostile towards Israel. Any support from Israel to their economy is based on goodwill. I have no knowledge of any other country helping their self-proclaimed enemy.

      Reply to Comment
      • Average American

        Ok I was a little sarcastic there, but seriously, from an objective viewpoint, Why does Israel not want Gaza the same way they want West Bank? For example, Gaza is part of the coastline which is valuable for seaports in that part of the world, it’s part of the border of Egypt which is not considered a friend, it’s got productive soil as we can see if only from figures of how much agriculture has declined there, the sea looks pretty there if tourism is a factor in Israel’s economy. AND Hamas would not be there.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Vadim

      Makes perfect sense. We must worry for the well-being of an entity at war with us. An entity whose charter calls for our destruction. No demands whatsoever of the Hamas, as if they have to responsibility for their population.

      They want export? Let their leaders come to us and say – let’s live peacefully. Demand that!

      Reply to Comment
    10. Jennifer

      I’m sorry for this….

      Reply to Comment
    11. Eric

      This is pretty funny 🙂
      Whenever there is something very bizarre happening to Palestinians, the only thing IDF soldiers for instance can say is “it is for security reasons”. That’s all.

      That’s the pretext for everything in the WB and Gaza. Security Reasons. Oh, but only Israel’s Security btw……

      Reply to Comment
    12. Tomer

      There is no connection between gaza and Yesha. One was captured from Egypt, the other from Jordan. It is not up to Israel provide some free transport or connection between these territories.

      Reply to Comment