In 1999 until September 2000, we were talking about Gaza becoming the next Singapore. Hard to imagine. Marriott International was planning to build a large five-star hotel on the beach in the north of Gaza. The Erez Industrial Zone was flourishing with Israeli and Palestinian-owned factories employing thousands of Gazans. Representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian ministries of Trade and Industry, together with representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian private sectors, were doing road shows together around the world, showcasing the newly planned Karni Industrial Zone on the border of Kibbutz Nahal Oz within Gaza.
Dr. Yehuda Paz from the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED) received the green light from his Kibbutz, Kissufim, to allocate land for the construction of a joint Israeli-Palestinian maternity hospital on the Gaza-Israel border under the title of “Birthing Together.”
In May 2000, I convened in the Palestine Hotel on Gaza City beach, a conference of more than 100 farmers and Ministry of Agriculture officials from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. We worked on a Protocol of Agricultural Cooperation, including the establishment of the first formal, government-supported Regional Commission for Cooperative Export Marketing between the four countries.
And then on September 28, 2000 opposition leader Ariel Sharon staged a visit, with hundreds of policemen and women protecting him, to the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa, and all hell broke out. Over the next years, the horror of the Second Intifada shook our lives with thousands killed and enormous damage to everyone’s lives and livelihood. In 2004 Yasser Arafat died, and Mahmoud Abbas was elected in 2005 to take over the Palestinian Authority. Soon after, Israel disengaged from Gaza.
Prime minister Ariel Sharon refused to cooperate and coordinate the disengagement with the Palestinian Authority or even with the international coordination body headed by former World Bank president James Wolfensohn. One year later, Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections on the ticket of taking credit for forcing Israel to leave Gaza. Gaza has not recovered since then, and the dream of Gaza as Singapore sunk in the sea of Gaza and has yet to return.
But the book is still open and its pages are waiting to be written. Seventeen years have passed since Hamas took over Gaza. Fifteen years of an Israeli blockade and almost total global non-cooperation of the world with Hamas have destroyed the economy of Gaza.
Moving people and goods in and out of Gaza is so complex, bureaucratic and expensive. The lack of ability to depend on any kind of transparent and accountable corporate governance under Hamas makes international investment basically non-existent.
The Gaza population continues to grow at a rapid pace, as does unemployment. Hope is a rare commodity in Gaza. But a question remains open – did the non-participation of Hamas in Gaza’s last war perhaps open a door for change?
Steps Israel can take on its own
THERE DOESN’T need to be any Israeli-Hamas negotiations to radically change the situation in Gaza for the better. Israel holds enough of the keys on its own to make those changes. The best example is the 14,000 work permits for Gazans to work in Israel. That alone brings in at least NIS 80 million every month – much better than suitcases of cash from Qatar. It is reported that Israel will increase that number to 20,000 work permits. That is at least another NIS 35 million per month entering Gaza while relieving the strong need for working hands inside of Israel.
During the height of Gazan labor in Israel, before the Second Intifada, there were at least three times that number working in Israel, in addition to tens of factories and workshops producing goods with Israel partners. At the start of the Second Intifada, there were about one million pieces of textiles stuck in Gaza which were being sewn for Israeli designers and sold in Europe. There was a huge amount of cooperation in the field of agriculture, and Gaza supplied about 1/12 of Israel’s fresh produce.
Today, there are several hundred Gazan hi-techies working for a few Israeli companies. There are several hi-tech startups and training centers in Gaza that could be a basis for more cooperation. There are rumors that Israel is considering the reconstruction and reopening of the Erez Industrial Zone.
I would strongly recommend that this time they design it on the model that I helped to develop in the 1990s, where it would truly be a cross-border industrial zone with entrances and exits on both sides. Israelis would enter and exit on the Israeli side; Gazans would enter and exit on the Gazan side.
It would be a security bubble with no weapons allowed inside, and private security companies providing security outside of the bubble. Those would obviously have to be recognized and authorized by the governmental authorities on both sides. That is the job of the sovereign; in Israel it is the Israeli government and in Gaza it is Hamas.
The more practical and pragmatic steps that can be taken without negotiations or direct contact for now, the stronger will be the interests on both sides not to disrupt the progress made. I do advise, as I have done for many years, that Israel and Hamas enter into direct secret back-channel talks first to resolve the issue of the four Israelis held captive in Gaza (two soldiers’ bodies and two living Israeli civilians) but to do that within the context of addressing a long-term ceasefire, easing the siege until it is gone, resolving the urgent needs for electricity and water in Gaza, and facilitating the possibilities for investment in Gaza.
I strongly encourage the regional partners – Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and others – to convene a conference with the participation of Hamas and Israel to make a plan for the security and economic development of Gaza. Let’s face reality, Hamas is here to stay – now is the time to set the course to engage with Hamas and to provide the means for its moderation and pragmatism to increase.
And lastly, with the engagement of the regional partners, elections for Palestine’s government – legislative council and president – should be conducted as soon as possible with an assurance from Hamas that it will accept the results regardless of the outcome, and a promise to Hamas that the regional states will also accept the outcome regardless of the results.
The writer, a political and social entrepreneur, has dedicated his life to Israel, and to peace between Israel and its neighbors. He is now directing The Holy Land Bond.