Analysis: Fixing Gaza's broken clock

Israel believes that it already twice tried to create conditions for normal economic life in Gaza, only to be met with violence.

Palestinian shop at a market in Gaza City. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian shop at a market in Gaza City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For Israel, Gaza’s clock stopped in June 2007, when Hamas threw Palestinian Authority presidential guards off a tall building in Gaza City and shot at them in street battles as the terrorist group tossed Fatah out of the Strip in a bloody coup.
A terrorist group at Gaza’s helm with the stated aim of destroying the Jewish state was a crushing end to dreams of peace with Gaza, spun just two summers earlier, when Israel unilaterally pulled its citizens and soldiers out of the area.
Israel blamed Hamas for reaping war where it had sowed peace. Hamas, in turn, has charged that this peace involved restrictions that locked its 1.8 million people into a 360 area bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.
In Cairo, both Israel and Hamas want to rewind Gaza’s clock, at the very least to the point prior to the coup. For Israel this means removing the terrorist group from Gaza’s helm or at the very least demilitarizing it.
Hamas wants Israel to make good on its pledges to the PA to open its borders for travel and trade.
In the past, Israel twice tried to create conditions for normal economic life in Gaza, only to be met with violence that has grown in scope and severity. Where Israel once faced only suicide bombers, it nows defends itself against rocket attacks and infiltration tunnels.
So Israel is cautious about any cease-fire offer that empowers Hamas, particularly in light of the terrorist group’s ties to other terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah.
Israel’s first overtures to Gaza came under the 1993 Oslo Accords, an interim agreement that set up the terms of Israeli- Palestinian relations in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel turned over civil control of most of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, just as it did in the West Bank, save for areas where Jewish settlements existed.
Former PA president Yasser Arafat was allowed to return from exile in Tunisia and set up his first official headquarters in Gaza City.
Under Oslo, the Palestinians opened an airport in Gaza in 1998 and began work on a modern commercial harbor in the summer of 2000. Separately, in 1999, a safe corridor for cars, vans and buses was opened from the Erez crossing to the West Bank checkpoint of Tarkumiya.
The overtures ended in the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, after the Oslo peace process collapsed.
Israel in response bombed the airport and the seaport construction site and closed the safe passage.
In 2005, Israel made a second attempt to quell violence by focusing on change in Gaza.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon tested Palestinian demands that ending the “occupation” would be met by peace with a limited territorial withdrawal. Sharon unilaterally pulled soldiers and civilians out of Gaza.
In the lead up to the disengagement, the Right warned of disaster while the government and the Left built for a rosy future.
That summer, Israel worked to renovate Erez, the sole pedestrian crossing between Gaza and Israel, to handle 20,000 people a day.
After the withdrawal, Israel had planned to eventually hand the administration of Erez from the army to the Interior Ministry, just as if it was any other international border crossing.
On a sunny July day in 2005, Shimon Peres, then a vice premier and Labor head party, optimistically spun a fantastical vision of peace.
One could almost hear the futuristic flapping of dove wings as he spoke. There would be a joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial park, including spaces for joint businesses meetings, he said.
A railroad linking Gaza, Israel and the West Bank would stop at Erez, the Ashdod port, Kiryat Gat, Hebron, Tulkarm and Kalkilya, Peres hoped.
As a step toward that vision, in November, just a few months after disengagement, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a complex document, the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which set out the terms by which Gazans would travel and trade in this new era of peace.
It included Israeli pledges, once again, for an airport, a seaport, fishing rights for Gaza fishermen and a safe passage corridor between Gaza and the West Bank.
The agreement also detailed the operation of the crossings from Gaza into Israel and Egypt. Under its terms the Palestinian Authority’s Presidential Guard were to be stationed at those crossings on the Gaza side. The EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) would be at the Rafah crossing to monitor movement between Gaza and Egypt.
But that agreement was suspended after the 2007 coup.
The Presidential Guard was to leave the Gaza crossings. Even EUBAM fled and retreated to Ashkelon. Since then, Israel and Egypt have heavily restricted Gaza travel, so that less than one percent of the population can leave the Strip on any given day.
It prevented the passage of Gazan goods to Israeli and Palestinian territories, which once made up 85 percent of the Strip’s market. It has also at times restricted the influx of goods into Gaza, particularly dual-use items that could be used as weapons.
According to the Israeli NGO Gisha – the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Gaza unemployment is now at 45%.
Israel had hoped that a harsh economic reality in Gaza would force the Hamas government to collapse.
The measures, however, were not the first but the latest in a series of restrictions on Gaza in the last 23 years, which have slowly whittled away the rights of Palestinians in the Strip to trade and travel to non-sustainability.
Initially, when Israel captured Gaza during the Six Day War, the Strip had no immediate boundaries. It was part of a larger territory, including the Sinai Desert, that was under Israeli military and civil control, but which allowed freedom of movement and trade.
For security reasons, Israel maintained control of Gaza’s sea and skies, but there were no land borders.
Gazans were not citizens of Israel, but shared the same currency and customs envelope.
Most importantly, they could travel inside and outside the pre-1967 borders.
Gaza’s first physical border was with Egypt, not Israel. It was built through the town of Rafah in 1982, when Sinai was returned to Egypt.
The Rafah border crossing from Gaza into Egypt was operated by the Israel’s Airports Authority and was open round the clock for pedestrian travel.
From 1994 to 2005, goods also passed in and out through its gates.
The rest of the Strip had no physical barrier separating it from Israel with the Green Line for almost another decade.
In 1991, in response to the first intifada, Israel mandated a system of individual permits for Palestinians who wanted to leave Gaza.
In 1995, Israel built an electronic fence along the pre-1967 borders separating it from the Strip, with two crossing, Erez for people and Karni for goods, and a sea route through the Ashdod port. There were also some minor passages, Nahal Oz for fuel, Sufa for gravel, and Kerem Shalom as a backup option should Karni be closed.
But there were minimal restrictions on travel or the transfer of goods.
When the second intifada broke out in 2000, angry Palestinians tore down the Gaza fence. Israel rebuilt a stronger barrier that could not be destroyed. It also bombed Gaza’s airport and the construction site of its harbor, and closed the secure passage of cars from Gaza to the West Bank.
In April 2001, Palestinians in Gaza fired their first mortars and rockets against Israel’s southern city of Sderot, located just kilometers away from the Gaza border. The rockets continued, as did a small number of suicide bombings against Gaza settlements and crossings, and, in 2003, terrorists from the Strip attacked a convoy with US diplomats.
Israel, in response to the second intifada and the Gaza rockets, imposed even harsher restrictions.
In 2000, prior to the second intifada, for example, half a million people left Gaza monthly through Erez to work in Israel, according to Gisha. But that number had dropped to 31,424 people exiting Gaza monthly by 2005, Gisha co-founder Sari Bashi said.
By March 2006, Gazans were no longer allowed to work in Israel. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, unemployment in Gaza rose from 31% to 41% in the year that followed the disengagement.
On paper, Israel signed the Agreement on Movement and Access, but in practice, it never truly got off the ground.
First there were the January 2006 elections, which gave Hamas a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council in the West Bank and Gaza. That was followed in June with the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit.
He was taken from the Gaza border by a terrorist group and held by Hamas for five years until a deal was secured for his release.
To each action, Israel responded with further restrictions, until the 2007 coup rendered the agreement obsolete. Since then Israel condensed the number of crossings, closing Karni, Sufa and Nahal Oz, leaving the Strip with only Kerem Shalom as its sole commercial crossing point.
The problem was not just on the Israeli side. On the Egyptian side, under former president Hosni Mubarak, travel out of Rafah was restricted and the transfer goods through that crossing was never resumed.
When Mohammed Morsi was president of Egypt he eased some of those travel restrictions.
To make up for this, Gazans vastly increased the number of smuggling tunnels that had existed since the 1990s for weapons, using them for everything from cement, washing machines and cars.
But when former field marshal President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ousted Morsi he shut down the smuggling system under Rafah by closing the tunnels and destroying homes to create a 3 km. buffer zone by the border.
During the first half of 2013, before the tunnels were closed, some 12,500 truckloads of goods and humanitarian aid entered Gaza each month, according to Bashi. The goods entered the Strip through both the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings and the smuggling tunnels.
In the first five months of 2014, that number dropped to a monthly average of 3,584 truckloads of goods entering Gaza, solely through Kerem Shalom, Bashi said. The statistics do not include fuel.
The difference, she said, was mostly construction material and other items necessary for Gaza businesses.
The closure of the tunnels, coupled with continued Israeli restrictions, helped fuel the latest conflict, known to Israelis as Operation Protective Edge. But even with the tunnels, the closures at the crossings were also factors that led to the last two conflicts: Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 and Operation Defensive Shield in 2012.
Although Palestinians have consistently launched rockets and mortars against Israel since 2001, the range and level of destruction have grown, to that they can reach Tel Aviv and beyond.
Earlier this month, UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon gave an emotional speech in New York, in which he said, “Do we have to continue like this: build, destroy, and build, and destroy?” The challenge for Israelis and Palestinians in Cairo is to find a way to break the pattern of violence and restrictions. But Israel is unlikely to end its blockade, while Hamas forcibly controls Gaza. And Hamas is unlikely to renounced violence, particularly without ending the blockade.
With one day left to go until the cease-fire expires, it’s unlikely that either Israel or Hamas will rewind or fix the Gaza clock. The most likely outcome is not an end to the cycle, but rather a more livable alternative for both sides that will maintain temporary calm, until the next outbreak of violence.