In a press conference this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Quartet Representative Tony Blair announced a new package of measures aimed towards, in Blair’s words, improving “the conditions and living standards of the Palestinian people” and in Bibi’s, “enhancing stability”. This on the backdrop of instability in Egypt as well as the closing of Rafah and reduced activity in the tunnels. What do the measures Bibi and Blair announced mean in real terms for Palestinian residents of Gaza?
The new measures promised are welcome and important for Gaza’s struggling private sector and the population at large. The changes in access policies seen since the June 20th Israeli Security Cabinet decision and the measures promised in this latest press conference are, however, minimal compared to need. Israel is currently allowing Gaza residents to receive 3% of the construction materials needed to re-build the Strip and to export 1% of the quantities promised in earlier agreements. A small fraction of projects led by the international community have received approval, let alone materials, to begin building.
With the proposed measures, we hope to see a rise in these figures. For example, the new package promises 40,000 tons of gravel – in February. The rest of the year is anyone’s guess, since hints in the press statement that Sufa crossing would be opened for transfer of construction materials appear to be just a one-time gesture intended to clear tens of thousands of tons of gravel which have been sitting there since Israel banned construction materials in 2007 and then closed Sufa in 2008.
Approval for twenty additional projects is also welcome, provided that it won’t take months to negotiate the entrance of each truckload of cement and steel, as has been the case until now. UNRWA alone reports that just 9% of its construction plan has been approved.
The measures also include reducing Gaza’s dependence on Israel for infrastructure – including by exploring new sources of energy and increasing capacity to treat sewage and de-salinate the water supply. Just for reference, currently the Palestinian Authority pays Israel for electricity to Gaza to the tune of some 40 million shekels per month (11 million dollars), and it is estimated that it would take several years to develop proper infrastructure to supply Gaza’s needs – assuming Israel refrains from measures taken in the past which have included blocking infrastructure inputs and bombing the power station.
But this isn’t just about “improving living standards” that have been dramatically and deliberately worsened over three and a half years of closure. While Israel negotiates numbers with the international community’s most high-ranking envoy, Gaza residents are being denied their right to build schools, hospitals, and homes and to travel, produce and sell the goods necessary in order to engage in their livelihoods. If there really has been a paradigm shift and security is the only criteria for what can enter or leave Gaza, then perhaps we can do better than this.