Discourse about Gaza tends toward the extremes. If on one end of the spectrum you hear that Gaza is nothing but an “open-air prison”, others will claim that “there is no closure” and that all Israeli-imposed restrictions stem from security considerations. It will soon be six years since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and Israel tightened access restrictions on the Strip – a good opportunity to provide up-to-date information on the state of affairs.
Between June 2007 and June 2010, Israel banned a variety of goods from entering the Gaza Strip, including chocolate, toys, children’s notebooks and even mango. In June 2010, Israel changed its policy and has since prevented only the entry of goods defined as “dual use”, meaning that they can be used for both civilian and military purposes. The list of banned goods is based on the Wassenaar Arrangement, but it includes additional items such as construction materials that are not part of the agreement.
In November 2012, Israel approved the entry of certain types of construction materials – plaster, whitewash, cinder blocks and the like. After Operation Pillar of Defense, the security establishment began allowing 20 truckloads of gravel to enter the Strip per day destined for the private sector; an amount which meets just a tiny fraction of demand. While private sector contractors need only fill out a form (Arabic) in order to bring in this gravel, international aid organizations are still compelled to undergo a much more complex process to transfer gravel and other items, including filing periodic reports and providing visual proof that the project is being implemented, at the expense of taxpayers and donors in foreign countries.
International aid organizations, which provide services to the neediest populations in Gaza, cannot buy construction materials smuggled through the tunnels and, therefore, depend on the items entering at Kerem Shalom Crossing. Hamas and the private sector in the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, are not limited by this constraint.
In addition, despite the easing of restrictions on entry of goods from Israel, the situation is still extremely precarious. In the last few months, the Ministry of Defense ordered the closing of Kerem Shalom four times following rocket fire toward Israel. Gisha has repeatedly stated that despite the fact that deliberate or indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza toward Israeli civilian population centers is a war crime, international law does not permit Israel to counter with a policy aimed at punishing Gaza residents.
One aspect of the closure which has remained almost entirely unchanged since 2010 is exit of goods from Gaza. Before the closure, 85% of the products sold outside the Gaza Strip were destined for Israel and the West Bank. Israel still bans exit of goods destined for the private sector in the West Bank and Israel, though it does allow goods to transit through its territory en route to markets in Europe and the Arab world. On the rare occasions when this restriction was “explained”, security officials claimed that it was part of the “separation policy”, motivated by political as well as security considerations.
Given that demand for Gaza-made products in Europe and other places is rather miniscule and that most of the items which currently exit are subsidized through a project funded by the Dutch government, the economy of the Strip, which supports a population of more than 1.7 million, is unlikely to recover anytime soon. The industrial and agriculture sectors have collapsed and about a third of Gaza’s workforce is unemployed. Without a dramatic change in its trade balance, Gaza’s economy does not stand a real chance of getting back on its feet.
While people can now travel more freely between Gaza and Egypt through the Rafah crossing, travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is still severely limited, even though Israel and the international community recognize the fact that the two areas constitute a single territorial unit with extensive economic, familial and social ties between them.
Officially, Israel allows people to travel only in “exceptional humanitarian cases, with an emphasis on urgent medical cases”. In practice, travel permits are also given to senior merchants and for limited family visits. Palestinians who wish to obtain a permit to exit the Gaza Strip must meet criteria determined by Israel. These criteria limit travel by people to certain “categories”, even when there are no security allegations against the individuals wishing to travel. So, for example, a Gaza resident whose brother passes away may travel to the West Bank to attend his funeral, but the same man will not be able to travel to console his brother if his brother’s wife passes away.
Another example is the restriction on travel by students. Since the year 2000, long before Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, students have been prohibited from traveling to the West Bank for the purpose of studying. The ban highlights an absurdity, such as in the case of the Gaza resident on whose behalf Gisha petitioned the court. She had received permits to travel to the West Bank to participate in seminars, but was denied a permit to travel to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University.
An inquiry with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel reveals that all types of pharmaceutical drugs can now enter the Gaza Strip, pursuant to coordination with the Israeli army. There was only one occasion, in 2008, when two types of drugs were banned, but they too were cleared for entry within a short time. Even drugs the army defines as dual-use may enter the Gaza Strip, though more complex coordination is required in such cases. At the same time, according to a December 2012 report published by the World Health Organization, there has been an ongoing shortage of essential drugs in Gaza over the past several years, with more than 40% of the items included in the essential drug list missing. The shortage is the result of debts owed by the Palestinian Authority to pharmaceutical importers and traders, limiting its ability to purchase and supply the health sector with drugs and medical equipment.
With respect to the entry of medical equipment and medical consumables, the security establishment requires a special application for every piece of equipment to be brought into the Gaza Strip. Coordination for the entry of such equipment takes about a month.
The restrictions Israel places on travel by individuals render access to training for medical staff in the Gaza Strip difficult. Travel by students from Gaza to the West Bank is still prohibited and the number of Gaza residents who receive permits to travel to the West Bank for professional training seminars remains extremely low. Given than advanced degrees in occupational therapy, veterinary medicine, and medical engineering are not offered in the Strip, for example, there are shortages of staff in these fields.
Israel maintains full control over Gaza’s territorial waters. It prevents transit via the sea for goods as well as people and does not allow fishing at a distance of more than six nautical miles off Gaza’s coast.
In the Interim Agreement, signed in 1995, Israel made a commitment to allow fishing at a distance of up to 20 nautical miles from shore. However, at the start of the Second Intifada, Israel limited the fishing zone and in 2002 committed to allow fishing boats to reach a maximum distance of 12 nautical miles. After Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured, the fishing zone was reduced to six and then three nautical miles. At the end of Operation Pillar of Defense on November 22, 2012, Israel again approved the expansion of the fishing zone to six nautical miles, reduced it again to three in March 2013 after Qassam rockets were fired toward Israel and expanded it back to six miles again on May 21. The constant back and forth on the fishing limit points to the fact that the restrictions do not necessarily arise from concrete security concerns.
As a result of the limited fishing zone, Gaza’s fishermen are unable to access areas richer in fish stocks. The shallow waters are over-fished which has depleted the fish stocks and damaged the habitat of young fish. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), between 2000 and 2009, there was a drop in the fishing catch of 42%, from 2,623 tons in 2000 to 1,526 tons in 2009.
According to the fisherman’s union in Gaza, there are 3,267 registered fishermen in Gaza who support 2,171 families. Of these families, it’s estimated that 90% live under the poverty line. More than 12,000 individuals earn their living directly from the fishing industry and many others earn their living indirectly from it, such as carpenters, boat owners and merchants.
After the implementation of the “Disengagement Plan” in 2005, Israel continued to control an area inside the Gaza Strip it calls the “buffer zone”. Though Israel has always said that the buffer zone extends 300 meters from the border, in practice, at certain points and in certain areas, it has ranged up to 1,500 meters.
After Operation Pillar of Defense, the army announced that it would allow free access up to 300 meters and that some Palestinian farmers would be permitted to coordinate entry to areas that are located closer to the border. Despite these statements, the IDF spokesperson has refused to divulge information on how one might coordinate entry into the buffer zone, which is home to much of Gaza’s agricultural land. According to figures from OCHA, since Pillar of Defense, four civilians have been shot and killed in the buffer zone and 109 were injured.
Gaza’s electricity crisis continues, and its residents experience 12 hours of blackouts per day, on average. While Gaza’s overall demand for electricity currently stands at 350 megawatts (MW), Gaza’s electricity supply is only 208 MW. The ongoing electricity shortage in Gaza impacts all aspects of daily life and hampers economic development.
Gaza currently buys 120 MW from Israel’s electric company and 28 MW from Egypt. The Gaza power station, intended to supply 140 MW manages to supply only 60. Its six transformers were destroyed in an Israeli bombing in 2006 and its production capacity has been greatly reduced. Last year, four new transformers were donated, and due to a malfunction in one of them, the power station now has a capacity of only 90 MW, however due to ongoing shortages of fuel, the station is unable to reach its already limited production capacity. Diesel for running the power station is paid for by the Hamas government-run Energy Authority and mostly comes in through the tunnels. Though the government of Qatar donated 30 million tons of diesel to operate the power station in Gaza, only a third of this quantity has actually entered, mainly due to the security situation in the Sinai.
Despite the changes made to the closure policy in 2010, Israel continues to restrict the entrance of fuel to the Gaza Strip. However, fuel is mostly purchased from Egypt because it is much cheaper than fuel from Israel. Most of the fuel that does come in from Israel is purchased by international organizations that cannot buy the fuel brought in through the tunnels, and a small quantity also enters for the private sector via Kerem Shalom.
The capacity and efficiency of the Gaza power station is also impacted by the entry of spare parts. It sometimes takes more than a year from the time an order is placed to get Israel’s approval for bringing in the required parts.
It is important to note that even if the power station were operating at full capacity and supplying 140 MW, the Gaza Strip would still be short 62 MW towards meeting the overall demand for electricity.