Myths and realities about Israel’s siege of Gaza

Palestinian youths hold placards during a protest demanding the opening of Gaza’s seaport which is blockaded by Israel, 19 January. One reads: “A sea passage is a humanitarian demand.” (Ashraf Amra / APA images)

For nearly eight long years, Gaza has endured an unprecedented period of strangulation so tight and relentless that the word “siege” is now automatically linked to the enclave in many people’s minds.

Over this period, a number of misconceptions have developed. Here are three of the most common ones I encounter when I talk about conditions in Gaza:

(1) Palestinians in Gaza are in need of basic things including food and blankets

This was certainly true during the 51 days of Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer, and its immediate aftermath, but this has not been the situation for most people in Gaza, at least not in the last four years.

As the siege was starting to exact its toll on the population, say early in 2008 until mid-2009, obtaining food for the family was a real, daily agony.

Back then, Israel created revolving crises: for a few days, sometimes weeks, there would be a shortage of wheat, and as media coverage of that crisis soared, Israel would allow wheat in only to stall deliveries of gas or fuel. As a result, at any given time there was at least one key element necessary to make bread missing.

Baby formula was often scarce, and the only types allowed in were the most expensive. It was the same story with everything from medicines to cement, livestock and fertilizer to furniture. At one point nearly all commerce ground to a halt because Israel did not allow coins and smaller domination banknotes into Gaza, where the currency in circulation is the Israeli shekel.

People still recount the days when they used cooking oil instead of gasoline in their cars, even for government vehicles and ambulances.

Mothers had to struggle with the two types of diapers Israel allowed in: one of very poor quality and the other too expensive.

Meanwhile a factory that produced diapers in Gaza shut down because Israel would not allow in raw materials (see the Goldstone report on the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, page 199). Hundreds of businesses producing goods locally shut down.

In 2007, as it was preparing to impose the siege, Israel’s ministry of defense calculated that Gaza needed a minumum of 106 truckloads of humanitarian supplies, mostly food, per day.

This was part of a deliberate policy to reduce the standard of living in Gaza as collective punishment and pressure after Hamas was elected in 2006 and then assumed complete control of the interior of the territory in 2007.

From July 2007 to July 2010, the number of truckloads actually entering Gaza was consistently just two-thirds of the 106 minimum, according to the Israeli group Gisha, which monitors the siege of Gaza.

At this stage, the siege was comprehensive and brutal, but it was also stupid: it attracted too much unwanted international coverage.

Counting calories

It was only in 2012, after a long court battle to obtain government documents, that Gisha revealed the cruel mathematical formulas Israel used to calculate the calories that each Palestinian in Gaza would be allowed to receive on average each day – just enough to put the population “on a diet” but not to cause famine. Despite this, there was chronic malnutrition among some of the most vulnerable populations.

In 2010, two events changed the course of the siege: the May 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the expansion of the tunnel network in Rafah on the Egyptian border.

Israel’s brutal assault on the flotilla and its killing of nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara proved to be a turning point, sparking unprecedented protests, both politically and in streets around the world.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian tunnel diggers had improved, both in expertise and scope, and lots of items which were effectively banned by Israel resurfaced in Gazan shops. For the first time in over a year and a half, wheat, milk, chocolate and soda were not so hard to obtain.

(2) Palestinians in Gaza would be much better off investing in infrastructure rather than resistance

Following these two developments, the Israeli siege took a smarter form. Israel eased restrictions on trivial items – soda and snack foods – but the strangulation on the economy and the public only tightened, making any real development impossible.

If people were going to get food through the tunnels anyway, why should Israel miss out on the profits of selling to them directly? After all, the vast majority of consumer goods coming into Gaza were made by Israeli firms.

However, any materials which could revive the local economy were still tightly controlled or banned, especially construction and raw materials. And Israel all but banned exports from Gaza.

This was followed by successive Israeli military assaults, in November 2012 and then again last summer.

The deficit of 75,000 housing units that already existed more than doubled as a result of the new destruction.

Israel back in total control

To complicate matters, Egypt destroyed the tunnel network following the military overthrow of elected president Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, putting Israel once more in exclusive control of what people in Gaza could have.

As a result, a major sector of the community sees food which it cannot buy, while a minority has money which it cannot use.

Now, some six months after the summer assault, less than two percent of the materials Gaza needs for reconstruction have been allowed in.

Meanwhile, Gaza suffers unprecedented unemployment, its people receive no more than six hours of electricty each day, tens of thousands go without salaries and the infrastructure is already collapsing.

It should be noted that throughout these six months, Palestinian armed factions have meticulously observed the ceasefire agreed with Israel last 26 August, while Israel violates it almost every day.

And now, the ultimate smart siege is the UN-backed “Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism,” which many in Gaza see as giving international legitimacy to Israel’s blockade.

(3) Before the siege started in 2007 things were just fine

Gaza was a prison long before Palestinians began improvising rockets in the early 2000s. Israel started fencing Gaza in 1994 shortly after the Oslo accords and gradually restricting its population, who depended on jobs in Israel, from traveling there.

The 50-kilometer fence runs along the entire land boundary between the Gaza Strip and present-day Israel and is made up of wire fencing, sensors and buffer zones. The barrier was extended in 2005, the year Israel withdraw its settlers from the interior of Gaza, to cover the border between Gaza and Egypt.

At the beginning, there were eight gates and crossings established to control movement through this barrier. Now there are only three, one crossing for people each between Gaza and Egypt and Gaza and Israel, and one for goods. All face frequent closures or tight restrictions.

It is no wonder that unemployment in Gaza was already over thirty percent in 2005-2006, before the siege.

A 2006 report by Anne Barnard, then of The Boston Globe, one year after the Israeli withdrawal, describes the situation thus:

Instead of new prosperity from burgeoning trade with Israel and the world, Gazans face a tighter Israeli security cordon that has sharply restricted exports. Tons of fruit and vegetables have rotted before reaching markets, small factories have ground to a halt, and in recent months, Israel has barred Gazans from fishing off their coast or entering Israel to work.”

The same quote could rightly be used today, and it would be just as true, though the situation is now even more catastrophic.

What Gaza really needs

What Gaza really needs is to be welcomed back into the world. It needs not to be seen anymore through Israeli eyes as a security threat. It needs to be seen for the endless possibilities of human innovation locked inside.

It needs to be able to connect with the West Bank, with Jerusalem. It needs freedom of travel. Its 1.8 million residents need not to be required to have special permits to enter many countries merely because of their residency in Gaza.

It needs accountability and it needs justice, for without justice peace is only a mirage.

Gaza needs to be left to live and prosper.

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