Doing the math – 1.6 million people, zero export

At the time when preparations for the flotilla are underway, we wish to focus on the situation in Gaza and on the fact that Israel continues to prohibit export of goods from the Strip.

On December 8th, the Israeli Security Cabinet decided to ease some of the restrictions on export of goods from Gaza. It announced that Israel would increasingly allow export of textile, furniture and agricultural produce from the Strip. These promises were reiterated as part of a package of gestures that the prime minister announced in February. The same promises reappeared in an April report to donor countries which also included the news that Israel was installing special inspection equipment at Kerem Shalom that would allow for increased exports. However, six months after the cabinet decision, the volume of exports from Gaza has only decreased.

From January to May 2011, Israel allowed only 187 truckloads of goods to leave Gaza – an average of two truckloads per day. Since May 12th, not a single truck has left Gaza. Since goods cannot be transported through the Rafah Crossing, there is presently no way to export goods from the Strip. More than one and a half million people – zero export.

A policy that categorically bans the export of civilian goods from the Gaza Strip is, at the very least, puzzling. Why, during the last harvest season, were Palestinians in Gaza allowed to export strawberries, peppers, cherry tomatoes and flowers via Israel to Europe but are now forbidden to export furniture, textiles and other food products in the same way? And why was the export Israel did allow to be transferred through its territory restricted to Europe and not allowed to be sold to closer markets in Israel, the West Bank or Jordan? Is that what the government meant when it claimed it was making efforts to “improve the economic situation of the population in the Gaza Strip”?

The damage caused by restrictions on export is significant. The restrictions are the main reason why 83% of Gaza’s factories are closed or are operating at less than half their capacity, according to the Palestinian Federation of Industries. The restrictions also result in high unemployment rates, which stand at some 30.8%.

The export ban has paralyzed whole sectors of the Gaza Strip. The fashion and textile industries in Gaza used to sell 70% of their products outside of the Strip. Today, due to the ban, the industry has suffered a near fatal blow. The same is true for other sectors, such as furniture and food, which depend on markets outside of the Gaza Strip for their survival.

What can explain the harm that’s been done to the ability of residents of Gaza to earn a dignified living? In an interview (Hebrew) a year ago, the prime minister said that the civilian closure must be lifted, leaving in place only a “security closure”, but it is hard to find a security argument that would justify a complete ban on export. Just like all goods entering Israel, goods transferred from the Strip undergo security inspections. The sale of Gaza-made armchairs in the West Bank will not supply weapons to Hamas and selling socks made in Khan Younis in Israel will not help build bunkers in the Gaza Strip. If there is a reason, security or otherwise, preventing the government from keeping its promises and from implementing a policy it defined as an Israeli interest, then it owes the public an explanation.

No economy can survive over time without trade and export, and the present condition of Gaza’s economy is a painful reminder of that fact. A stable economy is one of the conditions for a functioning society – a vital interest both for Palestinians and Israelis. Without export there can be no independent private sector and the only alternative that leaves is an economy in which money flows only from top to bottom – from the government and foreign donors to citizens. This is exactly what is happening today in Gaza where the public sector has become the biggest employer. Whereas in the past 60% of the workforce was employed in the private sector and 40% in the public sector, today the ratio has been reversed.

Israel began the closure of Gaza with the declared goal of ending Hamas rule. Four years later, it is clear that this policy has failed. Restrictions on export have brought increasing harm on residents of the Gaza Strip and made them more dependent on Hamas than ever.

Recently there has been an improvement in the situation in the Gaza Strip: while unemployment remains high, it dropped some in relation to 2010, and new building projects have begun. This is a welcome development, but there is nothing that will help more than allowing Gaza’s businesses to access markets beyond the Strip. Four years on, maybe it is time to finally consider a change in policy.

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