Opinion

The Walls Around Gaza Disempower Everyone but the Militants

Living and working in Gaza, I saw how living conditions deteriorated before the 2014 war. Israeli policies that compound that misery won't ever make Israel safe.

Palestinian children play among discarded vehicles in a slum near the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza in June 2016.
Khalil Hamra / AP

A series of political choices led Israel to war with Gaza in 2014. That war was not inevitable.  Neither is the next one.

To avert it, Israel must reconsider its formative choice to lump two million Gazans into a single enemy object. Ten years of cyclical conflict maintenance have foreclosed on Gazans’ rights, hopes, and alternatives; while failing noticeably to dislodge Hamas. 

Does anyone doubt that Hamas is preparing as vigorously, as logically, as Israel for the next round?  

It’s necessary to understand the dynamic of 2013 – 14, in order to change it.

To say (as Israel’s Comptroller put it) that Israel “did nothing to improve” Gaza’s conditions makes Gaza sound like a remedial student, whose reading needs a little extra attention.

Gaza did not experience an absence of positive change. Instead, deliberate choices meant Gazans’ lives greatly worsened in the year preceding the war, and removed Hamas’s incentives to refrain from violence.

I lived and worked in Gaza through this time, and through the war that foreseeably followed (although no one foresaw the extent of its wreckage). Conditions in Gaza had been deteriorating since shortly after my arrival in 2011 – but from June, 2013, Gaza was fishtailing. 

Already among the world’s most volatile economies, Gaza reeled from the destruction of its trade-smuggling tunnels, and the consequent loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Industries were wiped out. The destruction of the tunnels compounded the hardship of the blockade regime.

Two Palestinian schoolboys walk past a graffiti painted on a wall of the United Nations school of Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, on May 9, 2016.
THOMAS COEX / AFP

Food insecurity spiked with food prices. By December, the lights of Gaza were blinking out as electricity dwindled to 20% of demand. Municipalities parked their rubbish trucks, and left the task to donkey carts. Floodwaters rose in the streets, laced with sewage and stoked by the storm of a century.

I worked with recent university graduates, the first Gazan age cohort to become parents without ever leaving the Gaza Strip. While their peers despaired and fired the rockets, our project teams obstinately stayed in school.

They were among the thousand Gazans who graduated annually with IT degrees. They arrived for work each morning with their lips blue from the cold, floodsoaked to their knees, already taut and humming with the frustration of trying to obtain and heat water to bathe their children in winter. Water was delivered for a few hours, every few days, to houses that averaged three inhabitants per room.

Does anyone believe that their immiseration makes Israel safe?

Of course Egypt and the Palestinian Authority contributed to these conditions. However, Israel’s politicians speak publicly about counting Gaza’s calories and truckloads.

They control the entrances. They ensure that everyone knows who holds effective power in Gaza. As household debts mounted and the economy crumbled, Gazans attributed their hardship first to Israel’s policy choices.

Meanwhile, Hamas lost its incentives to keep the peace. From July, 2013, Hamas struggled to pay fractions of salaries and meet its budget commitments. Nowhere is it considered wise policy to arm and not pay fighters.

Some Israeli politicians spoke complacently of calibrating a weakening of Hamas. They hoped that an enfeebled Hamas might give way to a flowering of unarmed reason. Instead, Gaza’s teetering civil and economic order made Hamas vulnerable on its radical flank.

Hard-line militants boasted that greater violence would bring faster change. That they would resist more aggressively.  Hamas forces multiplied in the street as Hamas cracked down to retain control.

The threadbare coalition of late spring relieved Hamas of the burden of governing. Israel, having declined to negotiate with a divided authority, now chose not to speak to one united. Broke, boxed in, Hamas had little reason not to fight. Armies are most popular in the act of defense.

Palestinian militants of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) take part in a military show in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 28, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Make no mistake. The walls around Gaza disempower everyone but the militants. The walls lock constructive Gazans in with the armed and the enraged. The unemployed cannot avoid hearing the militants offer them work. 

I left Gaza during the August 2014 ceasefire. As the train entered Tel Aviv, I was transfixed by the smooth, white walls of passing buildings. Nothing in Gaza was unmarked anymore. Half a million Gazans were displaced, Sheja’iyya was gone, two thousand Gazans were dead and nearly 300,000 were crammed into shelters. The straight lines of buildings sagged.

Does anyone think that the price of conflict maintenance is being paid primarily by Hamas?   

When Netanyahu insists that Israel will always live by the sword, he is expressing his (thus far electable) dystopic vision as some kind of natural law.  He will always consider the risks of the next war easier to rationalize than the risks of a solution.

If you do not choose the next war, you will not have to read, two years hence, about the achievable steps that might have averted it. 

What might constitute a first, transformative step? 

Change must recognize that Gaza, a whole, youthful community, is stitched unhappily to Israel’s side. Recognize their most basic rights by allowing the import of equipment for desalination, light, solar or other energy, sufficient supplies for education and primary health care.

Method matters to such a step. The status quo is not altered by permitting the entry of one more truckload of bottled water. That truck merely reinforces the blockade’s power to deprive. 

Instead, recognize Gazans’ right to drink clean water. Remove water from politics.

Acts and language can transform the political outlook. Israeli politicians should disaggregate Gazans from the single enemy object they currently refer to. They could address Gazans as parents who want to raise their children in health and dignity. Those parents frankly challenge the failed, dehumanizing politics which prevail on both sides of the Erez crossing.

Gaza’s ambition, its business community and start-ups and job-seeking graduates left me unexpectedly hopeful.  Let Gaza surprise you, as it surprised me.

They have education and capacities that other communities would take generations to match. Behind that wall, a talent pool waits to succeed economically, manage scarce resources, live and co-exist.

Why not choose to empower the community, instead of its fighters?

Marilyn Garson writes from New Zealand.  She lived in Gaza 2011 – 2015, as the Economic Director of Mercy Corps, and Business and Livelihoods Consultant to UNRWA.