Israel’s Gaza policy has strengthened Hamas

Hamas is stronger and richer and Israel is isolated and condemned by the international community.

The recent attempts to break the naval blockade of Gaza are the strongest evidence that the occupation over Gaza has never ended. When the Sharon government completed the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, foreign minister Tzipi Livni planned to announce to the UN General Assembly in September 2005 that Israel no longer occupied Gaza and that the international body is now responsible for the welfare of its people. The Legal Department of the Foreign Ministry informed her that she could not make that claim. From a legal point of view, as long as Israel controls Gaza’s territorial waters, its airspace and its external boundaries, it remains legally responsible for Gaza as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In accordance with international law, Israel has the right to stop shipments of goods heading to Gaza. Part III, section 59 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (on occupied territory) states: “A power granting free passage to consignments on their way to territory occupied by an adverse party to the conflict shall have the right to search the consignments, to regulate their passage according to prescribed times and routes, and to be reasonably satisfied... that these consignments are to be used for the relief of the needy population...”
The provocation of the Free Gaza campaign is not directed at the sea blockade per se, but rather at the economic siege of Gaza. There has been a sea blockade on Gaza pretty much since 1949. The Egyptian military authorities in control of Gaza from 1949 to 1967 did not allow it to develop a sea port. Since the Israeli occupation in 1967 there has not been a port of Gaza, although there were plans to build a deep seaport in Gaza as part of the peace process. An international airport in Gaza was built and operated from 1998 to 2001, when the IAF bombed it during the second intifada. The Gaza airport was not used for cargo, but there were plans to expand it and to create a mechanism for international monitors to prevent the importation of weapons and explosives.
ON NOVEMBER 15, 2005 Israel signed two agreements (with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the European Union and the United States) regulating the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza via Israel and Egypt. The Movement and Access Agreement states its purpose to be “to promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground.” The agreement created mechanisms for allowing for movement in and out of Gaza and even between the West Bank and Gaza. The Rafah Agreement regulated the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. After the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit, the government of Israel unilaterally canceled these agreements. In reality the agreements ceased to be in use after the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections of January 2006.
In 1995 one of the senior Palestinian military commanders in Gaza invited me to spend a day with him. In his jeep, with two other military vehicles escorts we drove all over Gaza, protected by his Kalashnikov carrying soldiers. After dinner in his home, drinking Arabic coffee, he said to me, “I have something that I would like you to tell prime minister [Yitzhak] Rabin. There are at least 35 tunnels under the Phildelphi crossing smuggling weapons and explosives into Gaza.” I asked him why he didn’t use his forces to shut them down.
He told me that his hands were tied, but if Israel did not close them down, it would all eventually explode in our (collective) face. I reported that information to Rabin immediately.
SINCE THE unilateral Israeli decision to fully breach the Movement and Access Agreement and the Agreement on Rafah and impose a full economic siege on Gaza, more than 1,000 tunnels have been operating. The direct result has been the empowering of Hamas and the filling of its coffers. Through the control of the underground economy, Hamas has remained in full control over the territory. About 90 percent of the factories in Gaza are closed and unemployment is about 70%. Factory owners cannot get their raw materials in or their finished products out.
Israel does allow “humanitarian goods” into Gaza via various crossings. There is no hunger there; Israel is very careful about not creating a humanitarian crisis. How is that done? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has set 1,800 calories per person per day as the minimum amount of food necessary to prevent hunger. On that basis, the IDF has calculated how much food must enter Gaza every day based on the size of the population so that Israel fulfills its legal responsibilities as the occupier under the Geneva Conventions. In addition, Israel allows fresh foodstuffs to enter based on the surpluses that exist as a result of the strong agriculture lobby in Israel – Gaza is a significant market for Israeli agricultural products.
So rest assured, Palestinians in Gaza are getting enough calories. But there are serious problems of malnutrition, mainly as a result of a lack of protein in their diets – the main source of protein was fish, but because of the coastal blockade and Israeli fears of smuggling weapons via the sea, fishermen are not allowed to go out to where the fish can be found. There are also serious health problems as a result of the water, which is not fit for human consumption.
Because of the tunnel-based economy there are no real shortages in Gaza, but with some 70% unemployment, people do not have the money to purchase those goods. The only group not hurt by the siege is Hamas and its supporters.
There is a new class of nouveau riche, the Hamas operatives who control the tunnels. Hamas even created a Ministry for Tunnel Affairs where it collects taxes from the tunnels and even leases them by the hour, day or week.
Israel’s policy has empowered Hamas and has weakened the working class. Somehow, its brilliant generals and military analysts actually believe this policy will weaken the public support for Hamas and they credit the significant decline in support for the group to the siege policy. This is far from the truth, but the desire and the need to justify a policy which is so blatantly and morally wrong must have blinded their ability to see what is really happening and what the siege policy has turned us into.
What Israel should be doing is demanding that the movement and access and the Rafah agreements go back in to full implementation. That would mean a return of Palestinian Authority troops and officials loyal to Mahmoud Abbas to the crossings and the return of the European monitoring force supervising the crossings, with Israeli agreement and real-time closed-circuit Israeli oversight. Israel can keep the sea blockade on until there is a peace arrangement, but with the land crossings reopened, life in Gaza will be normalized, the working people will go back to work and Hamas will lose more public support.
The economic siege was meant to weaken Hamas and to apply pressure on it to release Gilad Schalit. The policy has accomplished neither. Instead, Hamas is stronger and richer and Israel is isolated and condemned by the international community.
The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information ( and an elected member of the leadership of the Green Movement political party.