Thirty-nine young people from Gaza applied to attend a peace education workshop sponsored by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information that was held this past weekend in a school in Beit Jala. Thirty-five of them were denied entry by the IDF and did not have the opportunity to join the 70 other Israelis and Palestinians who spent the weekend in dialogue, debate, disagreement and agreement, rejoicing in the mutual recognition that we all want peace and that peace is possible.
Actually all 39 Gazans were denied entry, but we managed to get agreement to allow four people to come. The refusal of the army to allow their entry had nothing to do with security. The army officer in charge even told me so. This is the policy and the army is implementing that policy.
What exactly is the policy and why was it designed, you ask? The policy is to completely isolate Gaza from the rest of the world and the reason is to convince the people of Gaza that they should take action against the ruling Hamas government. The policy is that no one leaves Gaza. Period.
Of course there are the exceptions - those with immediate humanitarian needs. There also some other exceptions - judgment calls made by the commander of the Erez crossing - that is how we managed to get four young people from Gaza to attend our peace education workshop and that is how about five businessmen get out of Gaza every day as well. But with all of the exceptions, more than 1.5 million Gazans are trapped inside this tiny and crowded piece of land, with no right of movement into and through Israel or into and through Egypt.
This policy is actually supposed to convince the people of Gaza that Hamas is their enemy and that they should rise up against them. Analysts in the army and in the security forces claim that the policy is working because public opinion research shows that there is a decline of public support for Hamas in Gaza. This might be true - there is no way we can really know what has brought about a decline in public support for Hamas, but it is very unlikely that the economic siege is the reason.
GAZANS ARE really suffering. This is what we heard from the four who joined us for the workshop. This is what I continue to hear from dozens of other friends that I speak with regularly all over the Gaza Strip. They all report the same thing. While most of the average Gazans - the secular and non-fundamentalist people - are paying the price of the siege, Hamas activists and Hamas-connected entrepreneurs have become the nouveau riche.
The underground economy has created the need to establish a Ministry of Tunnels with a full policy of tax collection for goods coming into Gaza, as well as for the time used for their transport. At the same time, the factory owners, the farmers and shopkeepers who were dependent on trade with Israel have gone bankrupt. What was once the mainstream of Gazan society, a kind of middle class, has been decimated by the policies aimed at making them turn on Hamas. This will not happen.
The majority of Gazans are broken. They have lost hope. They have no strength for a long, drawn out struggle. They feel detached from the world, an abandoned people - "even God has forgotten us," one of them said. The four people who left to meet Israelis took a big personal risk. They were stopped by Hamas on the way out and they were stopped and questioned upon their return. The other 35 who couldn't get out were willing to demonstrate the same courage.
We told the army: Check all of them; if there are any who are a security risk, don't let them out. But the policy is not about security, so they were not even checked by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). I cannot find the logic in prohibiting young people from Gaza from meeting with Israelis. Is the government implementing an anti-normalization campaign?
IRONICALLY I find myself often encountering Palestinians in the West Bank who refuse to meet Israelis because they see it as "normalization" with the enemy while the occupation continues. To them I always say, "Please explain to me how you not meeting with Israelis is advancing your struggle? How will you liberate Palestine and end the occupation by not talking to Israelis?"
I don't get it. I say to them, if you want to end the occupation and liberate your land and create your state next to Israel, go and meet with Israelis from the Likud and from Israel Beiteinu, don't boycott them - that has no logic to it at all. So I say to the government, if we want to change the regime in Gaza without reoccupying it, we must change the hearts and the minds of the Gazan people.
One of the young participants from Gaza said, "My father who used to work in Israel told me that he knew many Israelis who wanted peace with us, but I never believed him. After being here this weekend I now know that there are Israelis who want peace as much as we do, and some even more than us!"
Israel's current policy is not only not working, it is counterproductive and it is morally wrong. Collective punishment against a civilian population will never create future partners for peace. If we want to weaken Hamas, end the economic siege. If we want to bankrupt Hamas economically, open the passages for trade - it will put the tunnels out of business. If we want to build partners for peace, enable thousands of Gazans to come out to meet with Israelis. If we want change in Gaza, we have to change the way we treat Gaza. Hamas is the enemy; the people of Gaza are not.
The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org) and an elected member of the leadership of the Green Movement political party.