Ten years ago, Israel removed its settlements and military installations from inside the Gaza Strip; a move that remains controversial in Israel to this day and continues to shape the lives of millions of people. The “Disengagement Plan”, as it was called, was the most dramatic step in Israel’s policy toward the Gaza Strip in the last few decades, and as such, gave rise to more than a few myths and misconceptions. These are the 10 most prominent myths, together with an account of reality.
1. Israel disengaged from Gaza (and all it got in return were rockets).
In a nutshell: Israel controls Gaza’s territorial waters, air space and most of its border crossings. This isn’t disengagement, just remote control.
When the last Israeli soldier serving in the Gaza Strip exited the territory, on September 11, 2005, a key feature of Israel’s presence in the lives of Gaza residents came to an end. Yet, Israel maintained control of all crossings along its border with Gaza, as well as Gaza’s territorial waters and air space. Israel continues to control the majority of supply of water, electricity and fuel to Gaza. It controls cellular and electronic communication lines and a portion of Gaza’s territory, inside the Strip, in an area the military designates a “no-go zone”. Israeli politicians discuss among themselves whether to allow Gaza residents to build and operate a seaport. Israel allows the entry of construction materials designated for Gaza’s reconstruction, but under condition that it approve every single purchase. It has used Gaza’s fishing zone as a bargaining chip in every ceasefire negotiation at the cessation of hostilities, and refuses to even engage in a conversation about the rebuilding of Gaza’s airport, which lays in ruins after being bombed in 2001 (and 2009).
As for rockets, regrettably, communities in southern Israel have been suffering from rocket fire since 2001, when Israel had a permanent ground presence in Gaza. Israel is facing real security threats. But the way it has chosen to address them is wreaking havoc on the lives of the 1.8 million people living in Gaza – a majority of whom are children – and it is failing to provide security to the residents of southern Israel. In fact, security experts have acknowledged that not only has the closure failed to advance Israel’s security, but rather, it is one of the main drivers of instability in the region.
2. Gaza is under siege: No one enters, no one leaves.
In a nutshell: Both Israel and Egypt allow Palestinians to travel to and from Gaza, in theory, but the question is how difficult it is, who is eligible, and more importantly, who isn’t.
Both Israel and Egypt allow Palestinians to enter and exit Gaza through their respective territories, in theory. The number of exits by Palestinians through the Israeli-controlled Erez Crossing has been gradually increasing since September 2014, with a current average of 18,000 exits per month, more than triple the monthly average before Operation Protective Edge. But, these numbers are still negligible compared to need, and represent about 4% of the travel volume through Erez in the summer of the year 2000. Egypt occasionally opens Rafah Crossing for a few days at a time for travel in both directions of pre-approved categories: Medical patients with referrals to Egyptian hospitals, students, and people with foreign passports or residency.
In theory, it is possible to enter and exit Gaza. The question is how difficult it is, who is eligible, and more importantly, who isn’t. Egypt may have opened Rafah Crossing for a few days just recently, but the crossing has remained closed most of this year, and only a fraction of those wishing to travel manage to cross when it opens. In addition, while the number of exits through Erez Crossing has risen in recent months, the criteria for travel remain exceedingly narrow and most Palestinians do not meet them. Some merchants are able to receive exit permits under certain conditions, but ordinary Palestinians have to develop a serious illness, or wait for a first-degree relative in the West Bank or Israel to become seriously ill, marry or die, for their permit application to even be considered. Sometimes even Palestinians who do meet these criteria do not receive a permit or have to cut through gruelling red tape and meet the requirements of procedures and regulations, many of which have never been published.
3. Israel is rebuilding Gaza.
In a nutshell: Israel allows Gaza residents to purchase construction materials, under restrictive conditions.
In June 2015, at the Herzliya Conference, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said (Hebrew): “If anyone is rebuilding Gaza it is Israel”. The facts, unfortunately, suggest otherwise. Israel is not rebuilding Gaza. It is allowing construction materials, bought and paid for by others, to enter under narrow conditions. The materials enter Gaza only with Israeli authorization and under United Nations supervision, which renders reconstruction efforts difficult and costly. In fact, it took almost a year from the time the mechanism for coordinating the entry of construction materials into Gaza was established before authorization was given to build new homes in Gaza, partly because Israel could not reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority about the formula for bringing in construction materials for new homes. The quantity of construction materials that has come into Gaza since the mechanism was put in place has met just 10% of need in the Strip. A recent ban on the entry of wood planks is making matters worse for the construction sector and threatens to destroy the furniture industry. Besides that, rehabilitating the Strip isn’t just about rebuilding, it’s about allowing life to go on and flourish.
4. What about Egypt’s responsibilities toward Gaza? People can just travel via Rafah.
In a nutshell: Israel’s closure of Erez turned Rafah Crossing into Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world, but, although Egypt hardly allows the movement of people and goods through the crossing, it still bears less responsibility to allow passage than Israel.
Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip, the ban Israel imposes on sea and air travel and the severe restrictions on movement through the crossings it controls, have blocked off Gaza and turned Egypt into Gaza’s main gateway to the rest of the world. This situation does impose some degree of responsibility on Egypt and Egypt is far from fulfilling it. Rafah Crossing is seldom opened and thousands of people are on waiting lists to travel at the next available chance. Still, the control Israel has actively exercised over civilian life in Gaza (as described in Myth #1) throughout the years, and the dependence this has created, enhance Israel’s obligations to allow Gaza residents to lead normal lives.
5. Gaza chose Hamas.
In a nutshell: It wasn’t just Gaza that elected Hamas in 2006 and most Gaza Strip residents were too young to have taken part in the elections anyway.
Hamas won the majority of parliamentary seats in the Palestinian legislature in the 2006 election, but it did so throughout the Palestinian territory, in the West Bank and east Jerusalem too. A year later, Hamas took over Gaza by force, and continues to rule the Strip de facto to this day.
About two-thirds of Gaza’s population is under the age of 24, meaning that they would have been too young to vote in the 2006 election anyway, or that they had not even been born yet. Elections have not been held since. Given that the majority of Gaza’s residents are children (that’s over 900,000 children), this also raises questions about their, and other innocent civilian’s culpability for the actions of militants.
6. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are two completely separate entities and have no connection to one another.
In a nutshell: Despite the political divide, Gaza and the West Bank share national, social, cultural, familial and economic ties.
The claim that there is no connection between Gaza and the West Bank is based on the political and geographic divide between the two areas, but it ignores a rather long list of facts. A few examples: About a quarter of Gaza residents have relatives in the West Bank. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been recognized as a single territorial unit both by Israel (in the Oslo Accords) and the international community. Despite the political divide, the Palestinian Authority and its representatives are an inseparable part of life in Gaza in many ways. They pay Gaza’s electricity bill and liaise between its residents and Israel, just name a few.
7. Israel gives Gaza electricity, water and food.
In a nutshell: Israel does not give. It sells.
Israel sells Gaza electricity, water and food. It does not give these out for free. By the way, as far as electricity goes, despite the rumours, Gaza owes nothing to the Israel electrical company, unlike the situation with electricity sold to the West Bank. All Gaza electricity debts are paid with Palestinian taxpayer money. Additionally, not all the water Israel purports to sell the Gaza Strip actually gets there, and in any event, the amount of water and electricity Israel does sell Gaza are far from meeting residents’ needs.
8. Gaza could have been Singapore but chose to be Hamastan instead.
In a nutshell: Want a thriving economy in Gaza? Remove the restrictions on freedom of movement.
Severe restrictions on movement were imposed on Gaza residents even before Hamas took control in June 2007. Recall that one of the initial goals of the closure was, officially, economic warfare and that Israel continues to impose a slew of movement restrictions on Gaza that seriously impede the development of a functioning, let alone thriving, economy. While some of restrictions have been reversed (like the infamous ban on civilian goods such as coriander and chocolate), and others have been partially removed (the ban on the sale of Gaza-made and -produced goods in the West Bank has been replaced with a list of restrictions that render trade too costly), other restrictions have been added. A position paper we published this year assessed the economic potential of the Palestinian territory, with the main conclusion being that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip need each other if there is to be any realistic hope of a flourishing Palestinian economy. Without access to its natural markets in Israel and the West Bank, without ports, and with harsh restrictions on travel of people, the concept of a new Singapore in Gaza will remain a distant dream.
9. There is only poverty and suffering in Gaza.
In a nutshell: There are millionaires in Gaza, and a middle class too. Still, life in Gaza isn’t simple and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Gaza is poor. With a 41.5% unemployment rate, 57% of residents being food insecure and more than 70% relying on humanitarian aid, it’s hard to deny this fact. Yet, every once in a while, someone rediscovers the fact that Gaza has malls and markets, hotels and swimming pools, and these images go viral online. Bursting the bubble for those who only see Gaza as a caricature of a humanitarian crisis is obviously quite easy, but Gaza is much more than that. Yes, there are a few millionaires in Gaza, and a small middle class. There are students, intellectuals, artists, doctors and other professionals. Some shop in the markets. Some can even afford to stay at a hotel. The fact that these people exist does not erase the hardship and the distress and cannot make unemployment, which is as high as 60% among young people, go away. What this gap does do is offer a glimpse into what Gaza could be, if only given the chance.
10. All restrictions Israel imposed on Gaza are a matter of security.
In a nutshell: Travel restrictions apply to people against whom there are no security allegations, and the security logic behind the current restrictions on the movement of goods is difficult to grasp.
A Palestinian who wants to travel from Gaza has to meet Israel’s criteria. This narrow list of criteria has nothing to do with security. People against whom there are security allegations cannot cross either way. Moreover, the same person may be able to exit Gaza for one reason (for example, to attend a seminar in the West Bank), but won’t get a permit in different circumstances (if, for instance, she wants to study medicine in the West Bank).
It is also very difficult to explain some of Israel’s prohibitions on the entry of goods into Gaza. Israel now allows construction materials to enter Gaza under tight control. This creates a shortage of construction materials in Gaza, which in turn, gives rise to a lucrative black market. While cement, gravel and steel can enter under certain conditions, Israel is currently not allowing wood planks to enter, claiming they may be used to build tunnels.
If there were a security explanation for all these restrictions, Israel’s Ministry of Defense has yet to provide it. And even if there were such an explanation, measures that cause serious harm to a large population cannot be justified by whatever marginal contribution they make to security. Ten years after disengagement, Israel still limits family ties, trade, academic studies, fishing and agriculture in the Gaza Strip. It’s time for a change.