Let’s talk about our work for a moment. There’s a common belief that in order for organizations like ours to be effective, we have to simplify the complexities and nuances involved in our issue. We hope that those who follow our work have already noticed that we don’t subscribe to this belief. In fact, we think the opposite is true. Smart criticism based on the facts is harder to dismiss and in the end, it’s simply more effective. A little nuance can go a long way.
This is one of the reasons why we post responses to articles and other publications that include exaggerations and inaccuracies put out by both sides: those who support Israel’s policy toward Gaza and those individuals and organizations that criticize it. We’ve done this in interviews, press releases, on social networks, and particularly in this blog (for example here, here or here).
After this introduction, it might be easier to understand why we feel it’s important to respond to the article published by Noam Chomsky this week. Chomsky, a world renowned linguist, an intellectual and an extremely influential political activist, returned from a trip to the Gaza Strip and wrote about his impressions. We have no intention of arguing with Chomsky’s version of historical events, and certainly not with his personal impressions of Gaza. We will not offer our own analysis of the violence perpetrated by any of the parties to the conflict for reasons we have explained in the past. We will only address some of the issues covered in the article related to restrictions on movement, which, in our opinion, merit clarification.
Entrance of construction materials
Chomsky says that Israel only allows building materials to enter Gaza from its territory if they are destined for international organizations, not for the private sector. This is true and worthy of criticism. Nonetheless, heavy equipment in Gaza is not “lying idle”, as Chomsky describes. In fact, construction materials do enter through the tunnels in surprising quantities. Reports in recent months about a “building boom” in Gaza are correct. As far as we know, there is currently no shortage of building materials on the private market in Gaza, though the quality of the merchandise arriving through the tunnels is indeed lesser. The real problem lies in the fact that projects run by international organizations are the ones that are being held up as a result of Israel’s policy. The international community must obtain the approval of Israel’s security establishment for every single project and every single item needed for it as a condition for bringing in the required building materials. Meanwhile, the private sector freely purchases goods through the tunnels.
We think it is important to remember that long term economic development in Gaza requires the rehabilitation of industry and agriculture. These sectors are still paralyzed as a result of the prohibition on the sale of Gaza-made goods in Israel and the West Bank. Generally speaking, the question of whether or not there is a shortage of materials of this kind or that has no bearing on our principled position that Israel must cancel any restriction that is not essential for dealing with concrete security threats.
Entrance of food
Chomsky cites the publication of the “Red Lines” presentation along with a conflagration of findings from different periods of time, including about malnutrition among Gaza’s children. Following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the Government of Israel imposed restrictions on the entry of food into the Gaza Strip. Gisha led the fight against this policy, but at no point along the way was the problem really about a shortage of basic food products. Rather, it was (and still is) about access to food, which was impaired by rising food costs and unemployment and instability in maintaining stocks in the Strip. Again, even if there was no mass starvation in Gaza, there was no justification for the restrictions that were imposed on the entry of food products. Since the change of government in late March 2009, and particularly after the flotilla incident of May 2010, the policy on the entry of commercial goods into the Gaza Strip was eased and all Israeli-imposed restrictions on the entry of food into Gaza were cancelled.
Widespread poverty in Gaza is the result of many factors, but restrictions on the entry of goods is currently not one of them. The separation between Gaza and the West Bank and between Gaza and Israel is, however, a significant obstacle to economic growth and recovery.
Travel between Gaza and Egypt
Chomsky describes the gradual opening of the Rafah border crossing for travel as a “slight” change that has no significance for “a great many” of Gaza’s residents because Egypt only allows travel by individuals who have Palestinian passports. These passports are issued only with Israeli approval. All this is true. As far as we know, of the nearly 1.7 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, about 10,000 are prevented from using the Rafah crossing for this reason. While the situation of these individuals is extremely difficult, as Israel’s refusal to issue them Palestinian identity cards prevents them from exiting the Strip, the opening of Rafah to the passage of so many others is far from being a minor incident.
Currently, on average, about 40,000 people travel into and out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing every month. This is the same number of people who crossed when the Agreement on Movement and Access (the AMA) was implemented between 2005 and 2006. Chomsky fails to mention that foreign passport holders, like him, are able to enter and leave subject to Egypt’s and Hamas’s visa and permit policies. In our opinion, the image of an “open-air prison” does not help to understand the situation as it is today. We were glad to see that the article noted that Egypt’s change of policy with respect to the Rafah crossing has had no effect on freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank, which remains heavily restricted by Israel’s security establishment.
The state of the healthcare system
Chomsky devotes a large part of his article to the state of medical services in Gaza and quotes various sources that again refer to various periods of time. Here too, we can add and update some information. Israel does not limit the entry of medicine into the Gaza Strip. Shortages of medicine that have occurred in Gaza were and are the result of disputes between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Travel to Israel and the West Bank by patients in need of medical care is far from satisfactory, but here too, the responsibility has to be accorded correctly. The Palestinian Authority funds medical treatment outside the Gaza Strip for Gaza residents only when treatment is not available in Gaza and even if the available treatment is far inferior. When patients are referred for treatment outside Gaza, it is the Palestinian Authority that makes the decision whether to send them to Israel, the West Bank or Egypt, based on financial considerations. Gaza residents also lack the freedom to choose to receive privately funded medical treatment in Israel or the West Bank, again because of the PA’s restrictions.
Patients who are referred for treatment in Israel or the West Bank go through a security screening process, which does result in the delay or denial of treatment in some cases. According to statistics compiled by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel), 1% of all applications for travel by patients to the West Bank and Israel filed in the first six months of 2012 were denied. In 5% of the cases, there were delays that adversely affected the treatment. One cannot dismiss the pain and suffering experienced by the individuals involved in each and every one of these cases. However, it is worth noting that the parallel figures for the first six months of 2011 were exactly double: 10% delayed and 2% denied. There has been an improvement and it has only encouraged us to carry on with our concerted efforts, in cooperation with PHR-Israel, to reach a point where Israel does not violate the right of Gaza residents to access medical care in any way.
We understand the grave impression Chomsky got from visiting Gaza. In our work, we come into daily contact with the painful stories of Gaza residents who are prevented from reuniting with a spouse or child, getting an education or pursuing their professional goals. When this happens as a result of Israeli restrictions, we do our best to help.
The great challenge we and others face is convincing more and more people in Israel and abroad that despite the fact that the Netanyahu government “eased” the closure, it continues to impose restrictions on movement which can and should be removed. International law requires it. Common sense requires it. The interest of Israelis and Palestinians to create a better future requires it.
A description that can be easily refuted with facts is a weak tool in any public debate. For those who are hard to convince, one small inaccuracy is enough to make all the rest of the information suspect. In the same way, inaccuracies in one critique lead to suspicion about all other critiques on the same topic. This is why we ask Chomsky, and anyone else who, like us, works to promote the human rights of Palestinian residents of Gaza, to continue to sharply criticize anyone who violates these rights, but without making compromises on factual accuracy.