Guest Columnist: Down and out in Gaza?

If the Turks still insist on sending an aid ship later this month, they might think of rerouting it to Egypt or Syria.

Hamas police at the Rafah border to Egypt 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Hamas police at the Rafah border to Egypt 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
A curious incident occurred at the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt the morning of May 28. To paraphrase Arthur Conan Doyle, the curious incident was that nothing much happened at all.
Here was Gaza, billed as the world’s biggest prison, joyously celebrating what was variously described as a historical event, a tiny but symbolically important opening to the outside world after four years of seizure. Yet at the end of the first day of freedom, only 565 Gaza residents had crossed into Egypt, and the terminal was empty by the afternoon. The number fell to 404 on Sunday, picked up to 631 on Monday, and then kept dropping so that by Thursday Hamas was alleging that someone was hardening the Egyptian heart and oppressing the freedom-seeking for the second time in 3,000 years.
Rafah had been open for a year (although the categories of eligible travelers were more limited), and according to some reports, 160,000 people had traveled through it before the historic reopening. Even now, not everyone can freely pass: Adult men need visas, and crossing is limited for now to people who previously registered. But the fact is that even registered travelers didn’t rush to escape. Although the media were filled with emotional accounts of liberation, many Gazans said they were in no rush to travel.
The Gaza-as-prison has been somewhat overwrought. But what about Gaza’s humanitarian crisis? A Google search under “Gaza humanitarian crisis” reveals 1.1 million results (four times the number for Darfur, incidentally), but the references drop off precipitously after 2010 when Israel eased controls of its crossings following the Mavi Marmara. Most of the recent references to a crisis are Israel saying there isn’t one. Failing a real crisis, many Palestinian activists insist that Gazans suffer psychological trauma, which if nothing else at least is the kind of crisis well-fed and healthy Westerners can relate to.
The fact is that even at its worst, Gaza was never the humanitarian disaster it was made out to be – not the kind with starving children in the streets or with people dying slowly in hospitals for lack of medicine. Lacking pictures, activists would produce hundreds of statistics to try and illustrate a crisis that wasn’t quite there. But the statistics were selective and were in many cases not atypical of a Third World country. In fact, the infant mortality rate in Gaza is lower than most of the Middle East, and life expectancy is higher than the world average. If the Turks still insist on sending an aid ship later this month, they might think of rerouting it to Egypt or Syria.
Gaza could have been a humanitarian crisis, but Israel – with not a little prodding from the international community – never let it become one even after sealing the borders in 2007. Gaza’s economy stopped functioning, but aid flowed in enough quantity to stave off its worst effects. Some 70 percent of the population gets some kind of assistance, compared with 10% before the blockade.
STILL, WHILE the economy over the past year has undergone a rebound of sorts, incomes are a third below what they were in 1994. Businesses can’t import raw materials, and exports are severely constrained. Unemployment is deep into the double digits.
Some of the blame for this lies with Hamas’s mismanagement and corruption, and even more so with its insistence on waging a war against Israel that it can’t fight without causing undue suffering to Gazans. Nevertheless, Israel is the main party responsible for Gaza being a place one step removed from disaster.
Morally Israel’s blockade has been just on the right side of okay, but only because it let others feed and care for Gaza. The human cost of bringing down Hamas was too high for Israel to stomach, and as a result, its military and political aims were thwarted. Hamas is still in power and is happily rearming itself. Thus, it’s time for the remnants of the blockade to be lifted. By serving as cheaper competition for transit, the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings would make the tunnels less commercially viable and raise the cost of arms smuggling. It would give the army control over the flow of goods and people instead of putting it into the reliable hands of the Egyptians.
Instead, the government has quietly lauded the Rafah opening as a way of shifting responsibility for Gaza onto Egypt. But it’s not going to do anything of the sort. Unless the rules change, Rafah is only open to people, not to goods, so it can hardly serve as an alternative to Kerem Shalom. Israel should have no interest in allowing that to happen. The new Egypt may turn into any number of things – a pro-Western democracy, an Islamic republic or, most likely, an authoritarianism-lite regime. But until that happens, Egypt will likely be anarchy – its military and governmental institutions struggling to carry out their functions and the economy in decline. The Sinai Peninsula, Gaza’s next-door neighbor, has already devolved into Egypt’s wild east. Letting Rafah becoming the highway into and out of Gaza is a recipe for disaster.
But the dream that somehow Gaza will drift away into Egypt is part and parcel of a Netanyahu policy that is prepared to sacrifice any and all national interests for the sake of keeping the settlers implanted in the West Bank. The Gazans will become Egyptians, or something else, just so long as they’re not ours. The West Bank Palestinians will become second-class Israelis or remain occupied as they listen to yet another Netanyahu speech. Anything but citizens of a Palestinian state comprising a united West Bank and Gaza. There’s no vision, not even a thoughtless, unrealistic one – just a policy of avoiding any accommodation with the Palestinians.
The writer is executive business editor at The Media Line. His book Israel: The Knowledge Economy and Its Costs will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.