Did you know? The Gaza Strip is an “open-air Gulag”. At least this is what Ralph Nader, who ran for office in the US several times, says. In a piece Nader wrote for the Eurasia Review website this week, he implores readers to address the Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip and the damage it does.

We chose to look only at the first paragraph of the piece, since it is quite representative of the rest:

Have you heard much lately about the 1.5 million Palestinians illegally imprisoned by the Israeli government in the world’s largest open-air Gulag? Their dire living conditions, worsened by a selective Israeli siege limiting the importation of necessities of life – medical items, food, water, building materials, and fuel to list a few – has resulted in an 80 percent unemployment rate and widespread suffering from unlawful punishment, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment in Israeli jails.

Does the situation in Gaza fit what most of us think of as a “humanitarian crisis”? Probably not. Nader (Reuters)
Does the situation in Gaza fit what most of us think of as a “humanitarian crisis”? Probably not. Nader (Reuters)

There are 1.6 to 1.7 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip today, not 1.5 million, as Nader writes, but this is a minor error compared to others in that same paragraph. In the past month alone, 3,659 entries to Israel were recorded at Erez Crossing and 29,925 people travelled through the Rafah Crossing in both directions. Travel via Israel is still far from what it was prior to the second Intifada – some half a million entries per month – but the Gulag comparison certainly does nothing to further our understanding of reality. Additionally, Israel does not restrict the import of food, water or fuel, and while Nader’s article implies that Israel is responsible for the medication crisis in the Strip, the truth is that ongoing disputes regarding payment for medication between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are largely the cause of this. As we have demonstrated previously, the fuel shortage is also not a direct result of Israel’s closure policy. In addition, while there are a number of methods for measuring unemployment, even under the most liberal of these, Gaza’s unemployment rate is not 80%. Nader may have confused the unemployment rate with the percentage of Gaza residents who receive humanitarian aid.

We wouldn’t be discussing this article here were it not for the fact that it’s a good example of some of the current discourse about the Gaza Strip in international spheres. Whether for fear that Gaza will not get enough attention if not described in hyperbolic terms, or as a result of biased sources of information, it is not hard to find similar errors made in articles in some of the most well-respected newspapers, websites and blogs.

The thing is that there are real problems in Gaza and they are bad enough as it is. Amplifications and exaggerations draw attention away from these issues and are easily refuted. Once those who say “everything is terrible” are exposed as not credible, trust easily shifts to the other side, to those who say “everything is fine”. Major General Eitan Dangot, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories recently gave a presentation entitled “Fighting the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy” (Hebrew), where he gave two examples of major distortions about Israel’s policy: the medication crisis and the fuel crisis in the Gaza Strip. Israel did not cause either of these, Dangot correctly noted.

But Israel is responsible, for example, for severe restrictions on sale of goods from the Gaza Strip, which Dangot simply shrugged off. He stated that, “The fact that in less than three weeks [international representatives] stopped talking to us in terms of ‘hunger’ and started talking about economics and export from Gaza proves that they have become aware of what really goes on in Gaza and that the claims about a humanitarian crisis were unfounded”. Well, true, restrictions on export from Gaza do not sound as terrible as restrictions on bringing in food, medications and fuel, but they are still one of the major reasons for Gaza’s high unemployment rate and economic stagnation in the Strip, which thus leads to low purchasing power, including the inability to purchase food and other necessities.

Does the situation in Gaza fit what most of us think of as a “humanitarian crisis”? Probably not, but dire poverty and unemployment are exacerbated by Israeli imposed restrictions on movement – particularly on export. Gaza residents are able to travel to other parts of the world via Egypt with almost no Israeli intervention, but Israel still prevents them from engaging with the other part of the Palestinian territory, straining professional, academic, and familial ties under severely restrictive criteria for travel. Attempting to raise awareness by using exaggerations like “open-air Gulag” impedes efforts to provide relevant, fact-based criticism of the policy toward the Gaza Strip. It’s hard for us to understand who is served by this.