Two years have passed since Operation Protective Edge – the most lethal round of hostilities in the Gaza Strip yet. In the wake of the operation, dozens of countries pledged to help reconstruct the Strip, with the supposed blessing and support of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Israeli political leadership. The official goal was to rebuild what had been destroyed and help promote economic recovery for the benefit of local residents, in an effort to achieve long-term stability in the region. Two years have passed since the military operation. Now is a good time to take stock and ask – has there been any improvement in the lives of Gaza residents? Do people have hope for the future? Two things to bear in mind:
1. Construction materials have come in to Gaza over the course of these two years, in order to begin rebuilding the roughly 11,000 housing units that were completely destroyed, the 6,800 that were rendered uninhabitable and the more than 150,000 homes that were damaged during the operation. In addition, construction materials have entered Gaza to rebuild commercial buildings, industrial structures, infrastructure and more.
2. The situation for residents of Gaza remains dire. Unemployment rates remain extremely high, infrastructure remains woefully insufficient, the economy is sputtering, and the isolation from the West Bank and the rest of the world continues, with the ability to travel severely curtailed. About 75,000 individuals remain displaced. Desperation is pervasive.
Over the past two years, attention has focused mainly on the physical reconstruction of Gaza, in terms of repairs to buildings and the reconstruction of new housing units for tens of thousands of people who lost their homes in the fighting. Monitoring the quantities of construction material coming through and the pace of construction have taken center stage in reports about the aftermath of the operation. Meanwhile, too few questions are being asked about Israel’s inconsistent and unclear policy with respect to Gaza and what steps could have been taken to improve life on the ground, such as facilitating entrance of goods to Gaza or expanding what kinds of products can be sold from the Strip to the West Bank and Israel.
In contrast to positive rhetoric on the need for recovery, we note several recent examples of distinctly punitive actions that clearly harm those efforts: An increase in the number of individuals being ‘security blocked’ (when already so few meet the stringent criteria for travel through Erez), a block on mail services, and a ban on entry of construction materials to name a few.
Israel continues to implement its general prohibition on travel between the parts of the Palestinian territory, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with few exceptions, and travel options for Gaza residents remain limited. The Rafah border crossing into Egypt also remains mostly closed and every day, tens of thousands who await passage via the crossing to third countries miss opportunities to start jobs, study in academic programs or reunite with relatives abroad. Israel imposes severe restrictions on the entry of items on a “dual-use” list it manages without consistency or transparency. The list includes inputs for industry needed to drive the economy and items that are needed to rebuild factories, as well as electrical, water and sanitation infrastructure.
The alarming gap between the statements of top security officials who have voiced support for Gaza’s economic recovery as an Israeli security interest and the unsatisfactory implementation of policy change to allow it to happen was summed up in a recent op-ed published in Haaretz just before the Israeli-Turkish agreement was signed.
Senior military and political officials have been saying for two years that Israel’s security depends on the rehabilitation of Gaza. The mistake most have made is to refer narrowly to rebuilding what was physically destroyed in the course of 50 days of Operation Protective Edge. Real rehabilitation would include connecting Gaza to the West Bank and allowing people to thrive instead of just survive.