What’s missing from the conversation on Gaza

There are multiple players influencing life in Gaza, but the humanitarian situation there is largely the result of Israel’s restrictive access policy.

A PALESTINIAN boy is carried as he looks at the scene of an Israeli air strike, south of Gaza City, March 2018 (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)
A PALESTINIAN boy is carried as he looks at the scene of an Israeli air strike, south of Gaza City, March 2018
Over the past few months, many unlikely characters seem to have started to care that Gaza is facing a humanitarian crisis. Except it is not exactly compassion for the people facing the crisis driving the discourse as much as a warning call about the dangers lurking in their desperation.
Israel’s chief of staff, decorated generals, and even its decidedly not-dovish education minister, Naftali Bennett, have said that when Gaza suffers, Israelis are endangered. America is also concerned. In a “brainstorming session” held at the White House last Tuesday with representatives of the international community, US President Donald Trump stated that the worsening conditions in Gaza “require immediate attention.” If it weren’t so tragic, it might be comical considering that these are the same characters pulling the strings and deciding Gaza’s fate.
Most Israelis and many Americans think Israel left Gaza in 2005, when it pulled its troops and settlers from the territory. Few realize that Israel still controls almost every aspect of life there through its hold over movement – from the state of the economy and civilian infrastructure, to which family members a person can hope to visit and what kinds of medical treatment one might hope to never need to reach. Even in our modern era, control over borders, over sea and airspace, is everything. It determines the quality of your water, your education system, your markets, and even the quality of your relationships with your loved ones.
For the most part, Israelis recognize that the situation in Gaza is bad, but they rationalize that the sad state of affairs is an internal Palestinian matter or purely a question of security. They figure that their leaders and their army know best. But what if the leaders and the army know that Gaza is facing a crisis, that the crisis endangers Israelis, and then do absolutely nothing about it? What if they even take steps to make the situation worse? Like curbing movement of people, restricting the flow of electricity and deliberately stalling initiatives that could help boost the economy? Should one go on trusting the same leaders and the same army who are obviously just pretending to know what they’re doing?
There was a brief moment of optimism after the last major military operation in Gaza, Protective Edge in 2014, when a shift in the way Israel viewed Gaza seemed to be emerging. Small policy changes seemed to signal a willingness to reverse years of extreme restrictions on movement, allowing for goods to be transported out of Gaza to its once traditional markets in the West Bank and Israel for the first time in nearly a decade. Dozens of traders spoke tentatively but hopefully about re-establishing relationships with contacts in Israel and the West Bank. In the grand scheme of things, the policy changes were small and never fully implemented, but there was cautious optimism that they heralded a shift, a willingness to see civilians in Gaza where once there were only militants.
These hopes have been dashed as new restrictions have been introduced. Last year, the number of exits of Palestinians via Erez Crossing connecting Gaza to Israel, the West Bank and the outside world declined by 51% compared to the year before and by 58% compared to 2015. Travel permit requests go unanswered for months, even for those seeking urgent medical care or to visit ailing relatives. Hundreds of traders have been blocked and slapped with travel bans that curtail their ability to do business. Absurd new restrictions were introduced, preventing students and aid workers from traveling with laptops, when security procedures for screening laptops are employed in airport terminals and train stations throughout the world. And for seven months, Israel acceded to a decision on the part of the PA to reduce the amount of electricity it sells to Gaza, leading to environmental damage and leaving families struggling to cope.
In January, the PA and the Hamas authorities, along with local energy officials, reached an agreement to get the power back on, but the PA didn’t restore the salaries it had reduced to thousands of its former employees, leaving people desperate for cash in an economy where the unemployment rate is 46.6%. Gaza’s fiscal future is hanging in the balance on President Trump’s threats to further cut aid and against the backdrop of donor fatigue with the 50-year occupation. Egypt’s border crossing at Rafah, perpetually closed, could better connect Gaza to the outside world, but not to the other half of the Palestinian territory or Israel, where important markets and business ties have traditionally been.
There are multiple players influencing life in Gaza, but the humanitarian situation there is largely the result of Israel’s restrictive access policy and therefore, Israel has the power to reverse course. The Israeli officials seemingly wringing their hands, wondering at the crisis and the next violent confrontation that could unfold before them, are less earnest when you look up close. Their feigned compassion makes a mockery of civilians on both sides of the border. It’s not just about which big projects could eventually provide Gaza with more clean water or more electricity. It’s about Israel recognizing its responsibility to allow civilians in Gaza to thrive, not just survive. To do that, they need access. Sadly, by ignoring the impact of Israel’s obstructive access policies, the White House is only joining in the charade and thwarting meaningful progress.
The author is the executive director of Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli human rights organization that promotes access for Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip.