“But Israel did more than just make sweeping offers. We actually left territory. We withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and from every square inch of Gaza in 2005. That didn’t calm the Islamic storm, the militant Islamic storm that threatens us. It only brought the storm closer and made it stronger. Hezbollah and Hamas fired thousands of rockets against our cities from the very territories we vacated. See, when Israel left Lebanon and Gaza, the moderates didn’t defeat the radicals, the moderates were devoured by the radicals”. (Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations, September 23, 2011)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week at the United Nations highlighted once again the centrality of the Gaza Strip to any understanding of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is impossible to discuss the impasse currently facing the peace process without addressing the Gaza Strip and, in particular, Israel’s “disengagement” from the Strip. Netanyahu expressed a position shared by many Israelis, who see in the Gaza Strip a nightmare scenario of what is liable to happen if Israel leaves the West Bank, and particularly if it does so without an agreement. We left Gaza, Netanyahu declared, and the radicals gained strength.
However, developments in Gaza in recent years would seem to impart a different lesson – one that Netanyahu failed to mention in his speech. Netanyahu linked between Israel’s “disengagement” and the strengthening of Hamas, but that is not where Israel’s policy towards Gaza ended. The closure policy that soon followed, and which is still in effect, has been the subject of growing criticism by Israeli journalists, commentators and researchers who have argued that rather than fulfilling its explicit objective of weakening Hamas, the policy has actually achieved the opposite outcome.
In a previous post, we presented a collection of comments from the past year supporting this conclusion. Additional commentators and public figures have since added their voices to this growing chorus. In the past, Ofer Shelah (Hebrew), Amos Harel and Dan Margalit (Hebrew) have called for the removal of the closure. Dr. Zvi Bar’el, a senior commentator for Ha’aretz, has been arguing this position for several years. Barel urged an end to the closure, arguing that it is not only ineffective, but also damaging to Israel’s foreign relations. The Institute for National Security Studies also published a position paper suggesting that Israel should negotiate with Turkey to permit the entry of ships to the Gaza Strip after security inspection.
While the closure is ineffective, the easings announced by Israel in 2010 have proven beneficial. As Danny Rubinstein demonstrated in an article in Calcalist, the easings have had a significant impact on Hamas rule in the Strip. Rubinstein argues that the closure actually improves Hamas’ standing, since the organization relies heavily on taxes and levies raised on the smuggling of imports through the tunnels along the border at Rafah. Accordingly, the easing struck a blow at one of the organization’s main sources of income. Rubinstein bases his assessment, in part, on a report by the Peres Center for Peace. The report finds that Hamas has leveraged trade restrictions imposed by Israel in order to secure economic benefits. As a result, the movement’s annual budget rose from $40 million in 2006 to approximately $500 million in 2010. A report published by UNRWA on the same day shows that the closure has helped strengthen the public sector in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas, while at the same time leading to the collapse of the private sector.
Ironically, Prime Minister Netanyahu himself made this point cogently in an interview with Ayala Hasson on July 2, 2010 (Hebrew). “I think that the civilian closure will damage the security closure”, Netanyahu commented. “Instead of strengthening our position and our demands of Hamas, it has actually begun to erode our moral superiority”.
Netanyahu also claimed in the interview that Israel had removed the civilian closure imposed on the Gaza Strip. However, the easings do not entail the complete removal of the closure. Israel continues to prevent movement of people and goods from the Gaza Strip. This policy has exacteda heavy toll: over seventy percent of the residents of the Gaza Strip received humanitarian assistance and the unemployment rate is 25.6 percent.
Maybe the time has come to stop seeing the Gaza Strip as Israel’s doomsday scenario. The time has certainly come to stop regarding the situation in Gaza as an immutable fact. The closure imposed on the Gaza Strip has remained in place since 2007. During this period, the civilian economy in Gaza has collapsed, and Palestinians living in the Strip have been denied the right to visit their families, study or engage in commerce in the West Bank. To date, the closure has not helped stop the firing of rockets, bring back Gilad Shalit, or cause the downfall of the Hamas regime– objectives cited by the Israeli government to justify the closure. Instead, Israeli soldiers have found themselves discussing how many rolls of toilet paper should be allowed into the Gaza Strip, or confiscating smuggled tobacco. Clearly, Israel does not bear sole responsibility for the fate of the Gaza Strip, however, it can play its part by removing the civilian closure. It’s time to allow Gaza to be a different kind of example, for Israelis and Palestinians alike.