The State of Israel has no desire to harm innocent civilians in Gaza, as the government stated repeatedly during Operation Protective Edge. This is a laudable statement, and it is clearly desirable in that it defines Israeli policy during the rest of the year as well. Unfortunately, for many years, as well as during the most recent year, Israeli governments have been using their control over movement in and out of Gaza to weaken the population.
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Israel stopped the transportation of goods out of Gaza to markets in Israel and the West Bank, thus thwarting all possibility that farmers and industrialists could develop the Gaza economy. Except for a small number of unusual instances, Israel has also stopped the entry of Gaza Palestinians into the West Bank and other places for purposes of business, education, professional training, employment and even for participation in cultural and athletic events.
Although 30 percent of Gaza’s residents have relatives in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or Israel, family visits and family reunification are not permitted. The number of Palestinians who pass through the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel is today less than one percent of the number who passed through it in September 2000.
Since the bombing of Gaza’s power station in 2006 (and subsequent Israeli restrictions on the entry of fuel and electricity into Gaza and the bombing of the fuel station’s reserves again during the recent operation), the Gaza Strip has suffered from a chronic power shortage. Even today Gaza Palestinians receive less than 50 percent their normal electricity needs.
These measures that severely harm Gaza’s civilian population, and that reflect Israel’s isolation policy vis a vis Gaza, have their source in the fundamentally mistaken idea that if Israel uses ongoing economic punishment against Gaza, the population will organize and demand substantial changes from those groups and persons in Gaza who are in charge of Gaza’s policy toward Israel. But Israel’s isolation policy harms not only the basic human rights of Gaza’s population. It also weakens that population and strengthens the central government in Gaza. This is how dependence on the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza was nurtured – a dependence that enabled a tiny, powerful segment of the Gaza population to become wealthy while minimizing individual initiatives.
High-ranking Israeli security officials have begun to demand an end to the restrictions on civilian traffic in and out of Gaza because this policy harms Israeli interests. Even during the fighting, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said that Israel must help the population of Gaza rebuild. A week ago, a high-ranking IDF officer was quoted as saying that Israel has an interest in ensuring that the Gaza Strip does not come under heavy economic and social pressure (Haaretz, August 31).
The upper echelons of the Israeli defense establishment recognize the need to strengthen elements in Gaza who believe that cooperation with Israel is vital to Gaza’s future. Indeed, it seems obvious to every reasonable person that in the long term such cooperation is an inviolable condition for Gaza’s development as a place where people can live with dignity, while ensuring security for residents on both sides of the border.
Now that the fighting is over, an opportunity has been created to change a policy that was mistaken from the outset, and to replace it with an intelligent and well-considered one that will allow for the transportation of goods from Gaza to the West Bank and Israel – where more than 85 percent of the goods leaving Gaza were marketed until June 2007 – and allowing free movement of people through the Erez border crossing for purposes of business, education, professional training, employment, sports, culture and family life.
A new policy of more open borders with Gaza can bring about profound change without harming the interests of Israel’s inhabitants. Israel’s security personnel are skilled in conducting closely monitored inspections of Palestinians passing into Israeli territory, and a new crossing point has been built at Erez to allow effective and safe inspection of thousands of people each day.
Even now, Israel is allowing Gaza’s inhabitants to export goods abroad through its territory after inspecting the goods that are taken to Ben-Gurion Airport or Ashdod Port. There is no security-related reason not to allow those same trucks to stop in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, where there is demand for the strawberries, cucumbers, furniture and textiles that are grown and manufactured in Gaza.
The Israeli government must prove that the statement it made in wartime – that it has no desire to harm Gaza’s civilian population – is carried out on the ground now that the fighting is over, with the adoption of a policy intended not only to rebuild the ruins, but also to develop Gaza’s economy.
Prof. Kenneth Mann is a cofounder and chair of the board of the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.