For the last few weeks, media reports citing different sources have pointed to Israel “easing” or loosening some of the restrictions it imposes on residents of the Gaza Strip as part of the Egyptian-brokered talks between Israel and Hamas. Measures mentioned in media reports include opening the crossings, increasing the electricity and water supply to the Strip, building industrial zones in Gaza, and more. Most of these measures have been discussed before, sometimes more than once. Some of them would require significant financial investments, ostensibly on the part of the international community. Others require no more than a decision by Israel.
To provide context for the situation, we’d like to offer a short explanation of the current state of affairs.
The fishing zone is the area of sea off Gaza’s shores where Israel allows fishermen from Gaza to fish. On April 1, Israel implemented a partial expansion of the fishing zone it enforces to 15 nautical miles (nm) in an area of the sea opposite the south of the Strip.
According to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Strip’s exclusive economic zone stretches to a distance of 200 nautical miles. A section of the 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, signed as part of the Oslo Accords, stipulated that fishermen may sail to a distance of up to 20 nm off the coast. This provision of the agreement was never implemented. Instead, Israel has enforced a fishing zone ranging from three to 12 nm offshore, often reducing its size as a punitive measure. Seasonal expansions of the zone by Israel are routinely presented as a “loosening of the closure.”
The Israeli navy enforces the fishing zone by firing warning shots and also shooting live fire directly at boats and fishermen, and not always just at the outer limits of the zone. Fishermen have been killed and injured as a result, and their equipment damaged and destroyed. Other enforcement practices include the detainment of fishermen and the confiscation of fishing boats, equipment and engines as a means of punishing fishermen deemed to have exceeded the permitted fishing zone.
Access at crossings
Two crossings between Israel and Gaza are currently active:
Erez Crossing – a passenger crossing, and Kerem Shalom a cargo crossing. On March 25, Israel closed both crossings as a punitive measure, as it had done on eight occasions over the past year. Only humanitarian cases were allowed through Erez. The crossings did not reopen until Sunday, March 31.
Even when Erez Crossing is open, most Gaza residents aren’t able to use it. Travel through Erez is subject to Israeli approval, which is given based on strict interpretation of an already narrow list of criteria: traders, patients who need life-saving treatment unavailable in Gaza Strip and other “humanitarian exceptions”, including travel to attend a wedding or funeral of a first-degree relative or visit a first-degree relative suffering from a life-threatening illness.
Even people who meet the criteria are often denied travel for various reasons. The list of criteria is constantly updated, but irregularly translated into Arabic. Many Gaza residents are not even aware of the possibility of travel via Erez Crossing, located just a few dozen kilometers away from relatives living in the West Bank. About a third of Gaza residents have family members in the West Bank, Israel and East Jerusalem.
Kerem Shalom Crossing is Gaza’s only cargo crossing, and is located at the southern edge of Strip between Gaza and Israel. Some goods come in from Egypt, through Salah a-Din Crossing, located near Rafah Crossing. Since 2010, food items aren’t restricted for entrance via Kerem but Israel does block access for long list of goods it defines as “dual-use”, meaning items Israel believes could be used for military or civilian purposes. The dual-use list, which contains items that are vital for industry, construction, infrastructure and more is vague and its enforcement is inconsistent. The website of the UN-supervised joint Israeli-Palestinian Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism lists more than 14,000 “dual-use” items various parties have asked to bring into Gaza. These items include medical equipment, communications equipment, wood planks, pipes, and cement. Israel has sole power to approve or deny the applications.
In early 2007, about 1,000 truckloads of goods exited monthly from Gaza. When Israel imposed the closure in 2007, it blocked all shipment of goods from Gaza to the West Bank and Israel entirely, which, until then, had been the destinations for 85% of outgoing goods. It was not until 2014 that Israel allowed Gaza-made textile, furniture and some produce to be sold in the West Bank, and then in 2015 tomatoes, eggplant, textile and furniture in Israel, and later scrap metal. Many goods are banned for exit via Kerem Shalom Crossing and even for those that are allowed, the process is arduous. Commercial mail is also completely banned.
Gaza’s electricity supply is poor and insufficient, partly as a result of decades of neglect and repeated damage during military operations. Gaza sole power plant was built in 2002, and unable to meet demand in the first place, was also bombed in 2006 by Israel. The acute electricity shortage in Gaza harms essential services such as domestic water supply and sewage treatment. It also adversely impacts the operation of public facilities and essential medical services, which are forced to rely on generators.
Gaza receives electricity from two additional sources: Israel sells Gaza 120 megawatts (MW) of electricity (deducting payment from the customs duties collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority). Egypt has also provided unstable supply over the years, which at best, hovers around 20 MW. The power plant is currently running on fuel purchased from Israel by Qatar. The two turbines used at present produce 55 MW. No electricity has been supplied from Egypt since February 2018. In other words, 175 MW are available out of a demand of 400-500 MW, which translates into rolling blackouts of eight hours or more.
In recent years, Israel has pledged several times to increase the amount of electricity it sells Gaza by at least 100 MW. Two years ago, Israel told donor countries at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee meeting that it was committed to doubling the amount of electricity it sold, the “objective” being “to promote the civilian interests of Palestinians in order to improve their quality of life, and thereby bring about stability and prosperity for the general public.” Israel’s timeline and conditions for supplying more electricity remain unclear and in any case, political and economic obstacles prevent plans from being advanced. Gaza residents clearly deserve around-the-clock electricity, as expected in any society living in the 21st century.
Ninety-seven percent of Gaza’s water supply is not safe for drinking. The groundwater is contaminated and supply through the network is irregular. Electricity and fuel shortages impede the pumping of water for domestic consumption and the operation of desalination facilities, plus thwart the planning of future projects.
Essential projects designed to improve water delivery are held up, sometimes for years, for various reasons: internal Palestinian disputes, funding difficulties and reluctance from international agencies to promote and fund projects that could be bombed. On top of all this, Israel prevents and delays shipments of critical equipment for such projects, saying they are “dual-use” items, and hence dependent on a non-transparent and capricious approval process.
The amount of water Israel sells Gaza increased in 2017, but in the absence of infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, this 10.5 MCM per annum addition is not fully used.
Some media reports have framed the understandings between Israel and Hamas as “gestures” made by Israel. These are then concessions Israel is making by “easing” restrictions it had imposed on Gaza for years. Israel’s relationship with Gaza isn’t just its relationship with Hamas. Israel’s ongoing and substantive control over life in the Strip comes with legal and moral obligations to respect residents’ human rights, and at the very least, enable normal living conditions in Gaza. Given these obligations, the removal of systematic access restrictions enforced by Israel should not be understood as “gestures” but rather as steps that must be taken in order to reverse course. Easing unnecessary, punitive restrictions must happen regardless, without condition or delay.
Moreover, there are a number of simple decisions Israel could make immediately, at no cost, which could have an impact on the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. Most of these decisions have to do with freedom of movement: Allowing people to travel to engage in business and commerce, to meet medical needs, to reach academic study and access family. We recall that fundamental human rights, which Israel is obligated to respect, must not be used as bargaining chips and should not be made conditional on anything, least of all on political interests.