Michael Jansen
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
June 16, 2011 - 12:00am

It is hardly surprising that the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) should mark the fifth anniversary of Israel’s illegal siege and blockade of Gaza by issuing a report critical of Israel. But it is highly unlikely that the international community, led by the US, will press Israel to lift its punitive blockade or take any steps to relieve Gaza.

As a result of Israel’s policies, unemployment in Gaza is 45.2 per cent - among the highest in the world - and real income has fallen by 34.5 per cent over the past five years due to ever rising prices. The deterioration of the economy has the greatest impact on the 66 per cent of Gaza’s residents who are, by origin, refugees driven from areas in Palestine overrun and occupied by underground Jewish armed forces in 1948.

Israel’s siege and blockade predates Hamas’ seizure of control of the strip by a year: this punitive policy goes back to the capture by Palestinian fighters of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid that took place on June 14, 2006. The raid was not conducted by Hamas but by small radical groups based in Gaza. In response to this raid, Israeli troops kidnapped and imprisoned eight Hamas Cabinet members and 21 Hamas legislators - all civilians - in operations targeting their homes and offices. And, of course, Israel tightened a siege and blockade already in place.

In October 2006, Israel reduced the fishing limit for Palestinian fishermen from 20 nautical miles to six, and following its 2008-09 war on Gaza, Israel cut the limit to three, depriving Gazans of a relative cheap source of protein and making it impossible for the fishing fleet to make a decent living.

Exports were banned and imports restricted to items on a list drawn up by Israel, which permitted food supplies needed to sustain the population at the most basic level. Medicines were also severely limited.

After Israeli commandos stormed ships delivering aid to Gaza last summer, and killed nine Turkish activists, Israel was compelled to ease the blockade to allow in some commercial goods. But building materials remain banned, leaving Palestinians unable to repair or reconstruct 6,000 houses destroyed during the 2008-09 Israeli onslaught, and UNRWA unable to build schools for the growing number of pupils.

The blockade gives Israel the power to decide what can be built and to withhold materials needed for essential projects, including schools. Many UN construction projects await approval.

The ban on industrial goods and raw materials prevents Gazan manufacturers from reestablishing their businesses or starting new enterprises. But then, exports are not permitted anyway - except for a few lorry loads of carnations and strawberries in season.

While the private sector has cut nearly 8,000 jobs during the second half of 2010, the public sector - run by the Hamas de facto government - grew by three per cent during the same six months and by 20 per cent during the five-year period. This means that Hamas has done a good job and must be given credit for its accomplishment under very difficult conditions. This result is exactly the opposite of what Israel says it wants.

Israel openly claims it seeks to weaken Hamas and to encourage Gazans to oust the Hamas regime somehow. However, Israel’s hidden objective is to create such terrible economic conditions in the strip that Palestinians will be forced to emigrate. This policy was not adopted five years ago, but as far back as 1967, when Israel conquered the strip.

In her illuminating book “The Gaza Strip”, Sara Roy described Israel’s efforts to “de-develop” Gaza and to create a “captive economy” (an Israel-dependent economy) in the strip.

When Israel withdrew in 2005, former Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath told this correspondent that instead of granting Gaza freedom, Israel would impose control from outside the border of Gaza by dominating land, air and sea access. He was exactly right. But few world leaders listened to his warning about what would happen.

Over the past year, Israel has closed both the Karni goods crossing and the fuel pipeline into Gaza, located at Nahal Oz. The Sufa crossing for construction materials had been shut down earlier. Today, there remains only one goods crossing into Gaza, Karem Shalom/Karm Abu Salem, at the southeastern corner of the strip, where the Israeli and Egyptian borders meet. Pipelines have been built to accommodate fuel supplies and the transit capacity for goods has been expanded from 120-200 lorries a day to a maximum of 400. But one lifeline is hardly sufficient for Gaza’s rapidly growing population.

Israel, which plans for the long term, has every intention of squeezing Gaza by maintaining its siege and blockade with the aim of forcing Palestinians who live there to leave. Therefore, Israel should welcome the opening of the sole passenger crossing at Rafah, in the south of the strip.

Israel’s massive Erez terminal has been closed ever since it was completed - except for a scattering of Palestinians seeking medical treatment in Israel itself. However, Israel argues that Egypt should not allow free passage because militants and weapons could be smuggled into Gaza through Rafah. This is, of course, nonsense. Known fighters would not seek to enter or leave Gaza through the official Egyptian terminal and arms are more likely to be smuggled through the tunnels stretching under the Egypt-Gaza border than under the noses of the Egyptian army and border police. By making a fuss over the opening of Rafah, Israel is, illogically, imprisoning many Gazans who would like to emigrate - in line with longstanding Israeli policy.

In spite of Israeli claims that economic conditions for Palestinians living in the West Bank are improving, UNRWA tells another story. Rapid growth in this area cannot keep pace with the growth of the population. The unemployment rate grew from 21.7 per cent during the first half of 2010 to 25 per cent during the second half. The International Monetary Fund warned earlier this year that the growth rate is expected to slow this year due to a lack of external funds for investment and the lack of freedom of movement for Palestinians and goods.

Occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem is surrounded by 13 checkpoints that completely cut off the city from its West Bank hinterland and Israel’s law and policy of demanding permits from West Bankers who want to visit has isolated this area from its natural West Bank hinterland.

Israel also seeks to drive Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem while planting its own colonists in these areas and preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state. Unable to effect “ethnic cleansing” by forcible expulsion, Israel is carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing by stealth through de-development, economic squeeze and administrative deportation. No one in the outside world does anything about it - except UNRWA. But then, UNRWA is ignored by the world powers.


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