Analysis: Why the Gaza blockade cannot be fully lifted

If a final-status agreement were in place with a Palestinian government free of terrorist groups, many of the other restrictions on Gaza could be lifted.

Kerem Shalom crossing (photo credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
Kerem Shalom crossing
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
Whether the Cairo talks are extended or not, they cannot fully end the Gaza blockade.
It is simply not feasible, with Hamas at Gaza’s helm, to lift all the restrictions imposed on the 360-square-kilometer territory bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.
To do so would mean the following:
• Halting Israel’s military blockade of Gaza’s sky and sea • Building a seaport and an airport, with Gazans free to fly or sail in and out of the Strip
• Providing for a safe transportation corridor linking Gaza and the West Bank
• The transport of goods from Gaza to the West Bank or to areas within the pre- 1967 lines
• The export of goods overseas • Free pedestrian land travel Fully ending the blockade could only happen in a utopian future in which a trusted peace existed between Israel and the Palestinians.
Then there would be no reason for the blockade to exist.
More realistically, though, if a final-status agreement were in place with a Palestinian government free of terrorist groups, many of the other restrictions could be lifted.
Israel has always imagined that this would happen in the context of a two-state solution. It was willing to lift many of the restrictions in the aftermath of its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. Once settlers and IDF soldiers were removed from Gaza, Israel imagined that most of the violence against the Jewish state would cease.
Instead, rockets continued periodically to fly, and in June 2006 a terrorist group from Gaza kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, who was released only five years later.
In 2007, Hamas took over Gaza and ousted the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah party from the area in a bloody coup.
Hamas has forcibly retained control of Gaza ever since.
A Hamas-run Gaza makes it difficult for Israel to make concessions regarding the movement of goods and people in and out of the area, particularly because the terrorist group refuses to recognize Israel or renounce its stated goal of destroying the Jewish state.
The Gaza restrictions, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters this week, “are connected to the fact that there is a terrorist organization on the other side.”
Israel has therefore dismissed outright any Hamas demand to lift the military blockade of Gaza’s seafront and airspace.
Twice in the past – once in the 1993 Oslo Accords and again in the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access – Israel has accepted the principle of a civilian airport and seaport in Gaza. In 1998 an airport was built in the territory, and in July 2000 work began on a commercial harbor large enough for cargo ships to dock.
Israel bombed both the airport and the fledgling harbor in 2000 after the outbreak of the second intifada.
Rebuilding Gaza’s airport and building a modern harbor would cost millions. The international community is loath to fund such projects while relations between Gaza and Israel are hostile and Gazans fear Israel will bomb them again.
More significantly, it would take years to construct both projects; as such, pledges to build an airport or a seaport would not help Gazans travel now or offer them immediate economic relief.
Israel believes these two projects, to which it has already agreed in principle, are best handled within the context of a negotiated final-status agreement for a two-state solution.
What Hamas could feasibly achieve in Cairo is increased movement of people and goods in and out of the Strip.
Such movement would be easier if the PA’s presidential guards were stationed at Gaza’s three land crossings.
In the first half of this year, less than 1 percent of Gaza’s 1.8 million people could travel out of its two pedestrian crossings – Rafah on the Egyptian side and Erez on the Israeli side. Hamas can expect to increase this number in Cairo.
Similarly, it can expect to increase the number and type of goods that enter Gaza through Israel at the Strip’s full commercial land crossing at Kerem Shalom. At present, Israel meets the Palestinian demand for food, basic supplies and equipment. At issue is construction material.
Gaza will need it to rebuild, but Israel is concerned that it would be used instead for underground tunnels.
Separately, Hamas can expect that Israel would allow Gaza’s fishing fleet to travel beyond its current 3-km. nautical limit.
It would be helpful for Hamas to secure concessions on pedestrian travel and goods entering Gaza, but it would be even more significant if Gaza could sell its products to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel banned such trade after the 2007 coup, a move that made normal economic life impossible and made Gaza heavily dependent on international aid.
According to the Israeli NGO Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, traditionally 85% of the Gaza market for goods was Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Such trade does not fall under the category of exports because Gaza, Israel and the PA-controlled territory in the West Bank are considered a single customs envelope.
Gazans can export their products abroad, but that market has yet to be developed.
Livni said that Gazans should have the right to sell their products to Israel or the Palestinian territories only if Hamas agrees to disarm. Such an agreement would be an enormous victory for Israel.
If it leaves Cairo with an agreement that allows Gazans to sell their wares to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Hamas in turn can argue that it scored a victory over Israel and made great strides to help the people of Gaza.