GAZA, AN OPEN-AIR PRISON

The Gaza Strip, an area one-eighth the size of Rhode Island, represents one percent of historic Palestine. The strip is approximately twenty-five miles long and seven miles wide and is home to close to two million Palestinians making it the most densely populated place on earth. It is almost impossible to get into Gaza. To its north is the Eretz Crossing, a literal military/bunker-style installation controlled by Israel. Its eastern border, the site of the April 2018 demonstrations, is also controlled by Israel. To the west is the Mediterranean, patrolled by Israeli war ships and to the south is Rafah, a border Gaza shares with Egypt.

In 2012, myself and thirty-two other Americans were privileged to visit Gaza but to do so we had to first meet in Cairo. Against a demand made by the American ambassador to Egypt that for security reasons we cancel our planned visit to Gaza, we refused and instead turned to the Egyptian government for a military escort.  We left Cairo in the dead of night, our two small vans, accompanied by two white military tanks, and traversed the Sinai, a six-hour trek, before reaching Rafah, our entry point into the Gaza strip. This had been the first opportunity in over ten years for any group to visit Gaza and we were determined to make it happen.

The history of Gaza spans 4000 years. For centuries it served as a caravan hub of strategic importance linking southeast Asia to Europe. Pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves are but a few of the spices and goods that passed through Gaza and moved the world economy. Gaza has also weathered the region’s major empires-the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Ottomans

The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 changed Palestine’s map dramatically. Over 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes. Those in neighboring towns and villages were pushed into Gaza which had come under Egyptian administrative rule. During the June 1967 war Israel occupied Gaza and cut it off from Egypt. It was at that time that Israel also militarily occupied east Jerusalem, the west bank and Syria’s Golan heights.  See Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides for more details.

Until ’67, the Gazan economy was primarily agriculture and fishing based. After their lands were confiscated to build Israeli settlements and their orchards uprooted, Palestinians were obliged to become day laborers inside Israel.

In 2000, then prime minister Ariel Sharon abruptly closed the border between Israel and Gaza and overnight 100,000 men lost their day jobs in Israel. Once the most skilled labor force in the middle east, these men were reduced to aid-dependent consumers with a production sector at almost zero.

In 2005 Ariel Sharon carried out what he called a “unilateral disengagement” from the Gaza strip, pulling some 7,000 Israeli settlers who had occupied Gaza for 38 years (and using up most of the water) and placing them in settlements in the west bank.  These settlers comprised ½ of 1% of the population in Gaza yet they occupied 20% of the land while an additional 10% was kept under Israeli military control.

After the settlers withdrew the Palestinian authority made plans to revitalize Gaza’s economy. However, in order to accomplish this, they needed Israel’s cooperation.  Instead, Israel surrounded Gaza with concrete walls and high fences and strictly controlled all access in and out of the strip, including the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt for both people and goods.

In 2006 Hamas won democratically held elections which were monitored by then president jimmy carter. Israel and the us expected Abbas’s Fatah party to win. Instead, the Palestinians in both the west bank and Gaza, fed up with the corruption within the Fatah ranks, voted Hamas into power. They won 76 out of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament. The first thing Hamas did when it won elections was to propose a long-term truce with Israel. It has since agreed to accept a peace treaty based on the ’67 borders which is an implicit recognition of the state of Israel, a constant demand both of Israel and the us government. The truce offer was ignored by both Israel and the us. Instead, reprisals for voting the wrong way quickly followed both from the us in the form of sanctions and Israel which cut off the Gaza strip from the rest of the world, creating an open-air prison with some 1.7 million inmates, 55% of whom were under the age of 18.

The Gaza Strip could have become a prosperous Mediterranean region with its rich agriculture and a flourishing fishing industry, a highly educated population, marvelous beaches and good financial prospects due to the recent discovery of extensive natural gas supplies found within its territorial waters. By coincidence or not, this was precisely when Israel intensified its naval blockade along Gaza’s coastline. Since then, Gaza has been subjected to numerous Israeli assaults not least of which was the 2014 51-day pounding of Gaza resulting in 2,217 dead, 11,000 wounded and 111,000 homes damaged or destroyed, the vast majority of which have yet to be rebuilt because Israel strictly rations the building material it allows into Gaza.

The Gaza of 2018 is a radically impoverished political powder keg where aid dependence went from 10% in 2000 to 80% with no autonomy and on the brink of ecological disaster through a combination of Israeli assaults and economic destabilization. While this also occurs in the west bank, Gaza is so tiny and its circumstances so extreme it serves as a sad illustration for understanding phenomena like aid- dependence, agricultural dumping and cash-crop farming. Gazans have essentially been discarded as an exploitable work force with Gaza being transformed into a cage full of consumers.

An Israel committee actually decides what to allow in on a weekly basis from a list which reflects their own market surplus. Economists estimate that for every dollar of aid which enters Gaza a portion ends up in Israeli pockets to the tune of a 120% profit. Gazan fruit trees, for example, are destroyed then Israeli fruit is sent in and sold at inflated prices serving as a profitable dumping ground for Israeli products. Since the borders are closed and since Gazan manufacturing and farming has been systematically destroyed either by Israeli bombs or by a ban on imports, Gazans are obliged to a large extent to depend on Israel to send in consumer goods which it does to the enormous benefit of its own export market. Ironically all of the millions of dollars poured into Gaza by the international community serves as an indirect subsidy for Israel.

Israel has worked hard to achieve its closure policy of reducing necessary imports and altogether banning the entry of things like factory equipment, machines and raw materials like cement as well as banning all exports. Gaza used to be famous for its strawberries and flowers. Not anymore. As for foods allowed into Gaza, according to Dov Weisglas, advisor to then prime minister Olmert, “the idea is to put Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger.” Israeli health officials actually calculate the number of calories Gazans need to avoid malnutrition. These figures are then translated into the number of truckloads Israel allows into Gaza each day.

Currently 90% of the water is unsafe for human consumption. In refugee camps water comes 15 minutes a day and is only fit for toilet use. The un estimates that by 2020 there will be no water in Gaza.

Israel has repeatedly claimed self-defense for its actions in Gaza, claiming it is only responding to rocket attacks from Hamas. Prior to the cast lead attack in December 2008, Hamas had maintained a 9-month truce. The goldstone report charged with reviewing the deadly assault on Gaza revealed that Hamas had indeed maintained its part of the truce agreement while Israel was the one who initiated aggressive behavior. Israel, therefore, cannot claim self-defense when it is the aggressor, nor can it claim self-defense when it is militarily occupying Palestinian land.

 

According to Israel’s defense minister, Avidor Lieberman “there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip. Everyone is connected to Hamas, everyone gets a salary from Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are Hamas military wing activists.”

You are mistaken, Mr. Lieberman. The vast majority of Gazans are innocent people tired of living in an outdoor prison and cut off from the rest of the world. They are simply demanding their most basic human rights.

This book is available for purchase here: Amazon

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