Palestinian farmer picks tomatoes to be exported into Israel, on a farm in Deir El-Balah in the central Gaza Strip..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Gaza’s economic crisis is a problem in dire need of an immediate solution. That much is accepted, not only by human rights organizations such as Gisha, but by Israel’s security establishment and many politicians, including those from the political Right. Senior military and political officials have gone on record numerous times in the past two years saying that rehabilitating Gaza’s economy and giving the residents of Gaza hope for a better future are in Israel’s security interest.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, to his credit, is one of the few that are actually making a concrete suggestion, albeit a misguided one. Indeed, as The Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman argued last week, his solution – constructing an artificial island off the coast of Gaza – is “an impractical pipe dream.”
Indeed, even if by some miracle the plan were approved and implemented in the expected time period and within budget – we would just find ourselves five years older, $5 billion poorer (that is, the international community Katz expects to foot the bill would), yet exactly in the same spot.
Instead of goods going in to Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom Crossing, they would now simply enter through the presumably Israeli-controlled seaport 4.5 km. off the Gaza coast. In Katz’s vision, Israel would maintain control over coordination, approval and security inspections for goods going into Gaza through the port, and Israel would still control movement of people through Erez Crossing, and therefore all movement between the two parts of the Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Additionally, if Rafah remains closed as it is now, travel abroad would also require Israeli approval.
In fact, the only added value of Katz’s plan is to give Gaza a semblance of autonomy in an attempt to absolve Israel of its responsibility toward its residents. In reality, Israel would have relinquished none of its control, and therefore none of its responsibility.
However, we at Gisha are not just naysayers. In fact, if the Israeli government is taking suggestions on how to help Gaza’s flailing economy, we would like to submit some of our own.
For example, instead of building a seaport through which to send Gazamade goods to markets abroad, why don’t we allow more goods to be sold in Israel and the West Bank? Prior to Israel banning marketing of goods from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank in June 2007, more than 85 percent of outgoing goods from Gaza were being sold there. A port would not in any way help connect Gaza to its primary markets.
In fact, marketing Gaza goods or agricultural produce in Israel and the West Bank is already happening, albeit in a very limited capacity. In late 2014, the seven-year blanket ban on the sale of Gaza-produced goods in the West Bank was partially lifted, followed by permission for very limited sales in Israel in early 2015. Yet the exit of goods to Gaza’s once primary markets is still exceedingly circumscribed – limited by destination, quotas and type of product. It currently stands at a little more than one-tenth of what it was before the closure in early 2007. Israel can expand the categories of goods approved for sale, increase quotas, allow entry of materials required for industry and improve conditions at the crossing. All of the above would have an immediate positive impact on Gaza’s economy and on the livelihoods of thousands.
Increasing flows of goods from Gaza would also help the Israeli consumer. Since last year, Israel has allowed limited sales of tomatoes and eggplants from Gaza in religious markets. At first the allowance came for the shmita
year and then was inexplicably extended. Yet still, only these two kinds of vegetables in specific quotas can be sold. The Coordinator of Government’s Activities in the Territories, Maj. General Yoav Mordechai, already expressed his willingness to increase the volume of agricultural goods sold from the Strip, but the agriculture minister refuses to consider it, instead opting to import tomatoes from Europe to alleviate the current shortage of tomatoes, which is expected to worsen during the coming High Holidays. Why not bring vegetables from Gaza – alleviating shortages and surging prices for Israeli consumers while simultaneously helping Gaza’s economy and enhancing Israel’s security as an added bonus? A true win-win situation.
Here’s another idea: allow people to travel freely, subject to security inspections, between Gaza and the West Bank and abroad. Economies are developed and stimulated through the individuals that participate in them, and the people of Gaza – its farmers, traders, merchants, laborers, academics – are a necessary and crucial part of Gaza’s economic recovery. Israel should allow businesspeople to travel to the West Bank to reestablish business ties and pursue economic and professional opportunities; students to study in the West Bank and abroad so that they can bring back much-needed expertise and skills to advance the economy, and laborers to work in Israel and the West Bank so that they can make a decent living and stimulate the stagnant economy, instead of growing more and more dependent on humanitarian aid.
Frantzman rightly identifies that what is really holding Gaza’s economy back is not the absence of an artificial island, but rather Israel’s imposed movement restrictions. The good news is that reversing these does not require an investment of billions of dollars, nor does it necessitate prolonging Gaza’s suffering by another five years. These restrictions can be lifted today, right now, and they would help Gaza’s economy, and by extension, Israel’s security, far more than any island ever could.The author is director of international relations at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, based in Tel Aviv.