In mid-August 2005, Israel began implementing its plan to disengage from Gaza. Within less than a month, on September 11, 2005, its last troops exited the territory. The rhetoric that ensued was that 38 years of occupation had come to an end, but in fact, Israel has maintained control over the movement of both people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. It prohibits travel and trade by sea and air, and prevents passage between the two parts of the Palestinian territory. It also controls access to areas of land inside the Strip and fishing access in Gaza’s own territorial waters. In this way and others, Israel continues to impact almost every aspect of life of all of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents.
On paper, in statements, and in action, Israel acknowledges the duty to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, but it does not regard itself as committed to doing anything above the minimum required to keep such a disaster at bay. Since Hamas took over internal control in the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has enforced a tight closure, including further restricting movement of people and goods. The closure has prevented development and impacted innocent civilians in Gaza, and beyond that, by unraveling Gaza’s economy, has stunted growth in the Palestinian territory as a whole.
Restrictions on movement of people
Since the implementation of the disengagement plan, Israel contends that it has no obligation to allow travel to and from Gaza through the border crossings it controls, and its policy on movement has been based on the premise that travel, when granted, is an exceptional act of charity guided by narrow criteria. In March 2006, Israel stopped allowing laborers from Gaza to enter Israel via Erez Crossing. Just before the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, more than 26,000 Palestinian laborers entered Israel via Erez Crossing every day.
The blanket ban on travel between Gaza and Israel has cut off thousands of Gaza residents from their relatives and denied tens of thousands job opportunities and opportunities for personal and professional development. Denying travel between Gaza and the West Bank is an aspect of Israel’s “separation policy”, which is designed to separate the two parts of the Palestinian territory. The result is not just a violation of individual rights, but also an impediment to economic, social and cultural development in the Palestinian territory as a whole, which are basic conditions for exercising the right to self-determination.
Because of the severe restrictions imposed on travel of people between Gaza and Israel, travel from Gaza to third countries takes place mainly through Rafah Crossing, which is controlled by Egypt. However, since the regime change in Egypt in 2013, passage through the crossing is severely restricted and the crossing itself remains mostly closed, thus further exacerbating Gaza’s isolation from the world.
Restrictions on movement of goods
Currently, all commercial transit of goods takes place via Kerem Shalom Crossing, which is controlled by Israel. Egypt does not allow cross border commerce via the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing.The closure of the Sufa and Nahal Oz crossings (in 2007 and 2010 respectively) and the closure of Karni (in 2007 and its conveyer belt in 2011) thus left Kerem Shalom as Gaza’s sole commercial crossing.
Israel’s policy on entrance of goods to Gaza has undergone several changes over the last decade. In the years following Hamas’ rise to power in Gaza, between 2007-2010, Israel restricted entrance of goods to Gaza to a list of several dozen types of items. After the flotilla incident of May 2010 and the public criticism that followed, the policy changed, and since July 2010, civilian goods are permitted to enter Gaza, with the exception of items defined as “dual-use”, on the claim that they can be used for military purposes as well. The list contains patently civilian goods, which are critical for Gaza’s reconstruction, infrastructure, and industry, including basic construction materials (cement, gravel and steel). Recognizing the need to repair the massive damage caused during Operation Protective Edge, a mechanism was set up to allow controlled entry of construction materials, however, the pace at which construction materials have entered Gaza under this mechanism meets just a fraction of the demand.
For seven years, Israel imposed a blanket ban on the sale of Gaza-made and -grown goods in Israel and the West Bank, which were traditionally Gaza’s most important markets. During these years, the volume of goods shipped out of Gaza was miniscule, with just a few trucks every month going abroad, and most of those as part of a subsidized project rather than reflecting actual economic activity. In November 2014, after Operation Protective Edge and the destruction it left in its wake, Israel began allowing certain products from Gaza to be sold in the West Bank and in March 2015 began allowing limited sale of tomatoes and eggplants in Israel. The permission to sell these specific items in Israel came as a special measure for “shmita”, a year during which, according to Jewish custom, farmland cultivated by Jewish farmers is left to lay fallow. Given ongoing restrictions and quotas on exit of goods, as well as the complex requirements and thus costs involved in transporting goods, sales remain limited and have provided only a small measure of financial benefit to few people.
Restrictions on movement within Gaza and its territorial waters
Israel also restricts freedom of movement within Gaza. Military forces and installations deployed on the Israeli side of the border fence make use of live fire, often with deadly results, to enforce a prohibition on entry into an area designated by Israel as a buffer zone. This is a strip of land stretching 300 meters into Gaza’s territory, all along its border with Israel. Farmers are ostensibly permitted to work lands up to a distance of 100 meters from the fence, but it’s unclear how the army determines who is and is not a farmer. The fact that the military presumes to distinguish between farmers and non-farmers without using any sort of coordination mechanism puts lives at risk and effectively prevents farming, harming landowners’ livelihoods and reducing Gaza’s overall agricultural output.
Israel allows fishing in Gaza’s territorial waters up to a distance of six nautical miles off the coast, and has occasionally restricted the distance to three nautical miles only. These restrictions are also often enforced with live fire. In addition to putting lives in danger, the restrictions have significantly impacted livelihoods and reduced fishing output in Gaza.
A decade of mistakes
In the decade that has passed since the implementation of the disengagement plan, violence has spiraled in three major escalations. The years of closure have weakened moderates in Gaza and have clearly not improved the security of Israeli residents in surrounding communities. More than 70% of Gaza’s population receives humanitarian aid and about 57% suffer from food insecurity. Gaza’s unemployment rate is over 40% – and is nearly 60% among young people. Gaza’s economic stagnation is such that its current GDP is lower than it was twenty years ago. All this, in addition to severe shortages in electricity and clean drinking water and grave need for improved civilian infrastructure, hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of homes.
Israel does not bear sole responsibility for this dire situation, but decisions it made in the years before and after the disengagement have played a key role in producing and maintaining it. Prior to the disengagement, Israel failed to invest in developing infrastructure in Gaza, destroyed its seaport and airport, and has prevented independent commercial access. As a consequence, Gaza developed a dependence on access to employment and markets in Israel and a reliance on Israel for maintaining civilian infrastructure, including for its purchase of fuel, electricity and water. Gaza and the West Bank, which continue to share a single economy, a single education system, a single healthcare system and countless familial, cultural and social ties, are also reliant on Israel to allow passage between the two areas.
With the implementation of the disengagement plan, Israeli authorities propagated the position that Gaza is an independent entity, separate from both Israel and the West Bank and that Israel no longer bears any responsibilities toward its residents. This position is categorically false.
Gaza’s dependence on Israel and Israel’s control over Gaza result in a duty on Israel’s part to do whatever it can, subject to legitimate security considerations, to allow Gaza’s residents to lead normal lives. A decade after the disengagement, the time has come to reverse the tragic mistakes that have been made, including first and foremost, ongoing, unacceptable and unnecessary restrictions on movement. Instead, Israel should adopt a strategy based on generating hope for the people of the region – Palestinians and Israelis alike.