Six more misconceptions about Gaza (the international edition)

In the last post, we attempted to delineate some of the common misconceptions or simplifications about Gaza, which, broadly speaking, are heard most often in Israel. This week, we’d like to list a few more that usually come at us from abroad.

In sixth place: There is a siege/blockade on the Strip

all it takes is a few photos of a bustling market to refute a very simplistic understanding of the closure. Feras Market in Gaza City

all it takes is a few photos of a bustling market to refute a very simplistic understanding of the closure. Feras Market in Gaza City

Though the words “siege” and “blockade” are frequently used, we believe those terms actually misrepresent the situation in important ways. “Closure” has been our term of choice, and in our 2008 paper Gaza Closure Defined we explained why in detail. Leaving aside the legal terms and definitions, it’s clear that siege and blockade are used to describe the difficult situation faced by residents of Gaza, mainly by well-intentioned individuals who want to help. The problem is that these terms tend to evoke a situation where nothing and no one comes in or out (again, this despite the fact that their legal meanings are quite specific). It’s certainly not the case that nothing or no one is moving and because of this, it’s quite easy to refute the terms, thus dismissing the very real and difficult closure that is in place. In other words, all it takes is a few photos of a bustling market or statistics on truckloads to refute a very simplistic understanding of the closure. The point is not that movement isn’t occurring at all, the point is that it’s not in the right quantities or kinds.

In fifth place: People in Gaza can’t go anywhere

This was not far from the truth until June 2010, when Egypt began to allow for greater movement of people via Rafah Crossing. Today around 28,000 people pass through the crossing in both directions each month, and there are no longer waiting lists for exit from Gaza into Egypt. So access to the outside world from Gaza is easier today, and less controlled by Israel.

What hasn’t really changed are the restrictions on travel from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank, which is by far the most important. Considering that Gaza and the West Bank share one education and one health system, are bound by countless familial and social ties, and that Gaza’s primary markets are in Israel and the West Bank, this is where the crux of the problem lies. Exit from Gaza via Israel, for those needing to travel into Israel or to the West Bank, officially remains limited to “exceptional humanitarian circumstances”. In practice, Israel allows approximately 3000 exits of Palestinians from Gaza every month: nearly half are businessmen, and the rest are mainly medical patients and their companions. Compared with more than half a million exits before the start of the second Intifada in September 2000, this is hardly sufficient.

There are several thousand statusless persons in Gaza and it is unclear how many of these have no other form of valid travel document. For these individuals travel really is impossible because they are not recognized by Israel, Egypt, or any other place for that matter. Israel, via its control of the Palestinian population registry, continues to determine who is counted as a resident of the occupied territory and can therefore receive an ID and passport.

In fourth place: It’s illegal for Israel to stop ships on their way to Gaza

Gisha’s position is that Israel has the right under the law of occupation to determine by which routes goods and people enter and leave the Gaza Strip, and condition their passage on security checks. However, at the same time it bears an obligation to allow movement and access in such a way that facilitates normal life. In other words, the same authority that allows them to stop ships translates into a responsibility to allow freedom of movement, subject only to specific and necessary security screening procedures.

In third place: Israel bears full responsibility for what happens in Gaza because of the occupation

In our opinion, the formula that makes the most sense is that control equals responsibility – where you exercise it, you are also responsible for it. That means that Israel bears primary responsibility in the spheres where it maintains control of Gaza – such as on the ability to export and on movement between Gaza and the West Bank. This does not mean, however, that other actors exercising control, namely Hamas and the PA, don’t also bear a responsibility for what happens in those domains where they are the primary actor – for example, in the creation of school textbooks or the running of prisons.

In second place: What Gaza needs is more aid

A common refrain we hear is that people want to work, not receive charity. Abu Shawareb family

A common refrain we hear is that people want to work, not receive charity. Abu Shawareb family

While it’s true that at least 70% of the population receives humanitarian aid, the key problem isn’t that there is a lack of aid but rather a lack of economic activity to pull people up and away from dependence on aid. A common refrain we hear is that people want to work, not receive charity. Restrictions on movement, of both goods and people, have prevented residents of Gaza from engaging in the productive, dignified work that could be available to them otherwise. Take the case of Naima Abu Shawareb and her family as an example.

The good news is that Gaza has the potential to form a productive and prosperous part of the Palestinian territory: it has infrastructure, universities, a robust civil society, industries and a highly educated population. This should give reason not to be satisfied that things are “good enough” but rather to demand that access be permitted to allow that potential to be reached.

In first place: There’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Like we note above, when one paints the Strip with wide swaths of murky terminology, the task of refuting and obscuring the real picture becomes much easier. Is the entirety of Gaza’s population facing a humanitarian crisis, in the terms that one might imagine places ravaged by famine or destitution? The answer is no. It’s hard to argue though that without the efforts and resources of international organizations, including the United Nations, the situation wouldn’t be much worse. It’s also hard to argue that restrictions on movement which have resulted in a stifled economy and high dependence on charity are in any way acceptable, especially given that the official policy of the Israeli government is to enable economic development in Gaza. We think that the question of whether or not there is a humanitarian crisis is the wrong one to ask. We’re often under the impression that for some, the ambiguous red line that defines a humanitarian crisis also demarcates the extent of their concern. We believe that it’s Israel’s and the international community’s duty and in their interest to strive higher than that.

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4 Responses to Six more misconceptions about Gaza (the international edition)

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