Search form

Last updated: 46 min 5 sec ago

You are here

We still need to talk about Gaza 

One of the tragedies of Gaza is that there is a general consensus that the catastrophic humanitarian situation there is untenable and unjust, and if left unchecked can only spell future radicalization, conflict and further human suffering — yet nothing is being done to avert this. There is no political strategy or will to change it. It is not only those who live there or the international agencies operating there that are warning about the inhuman conditions in which the Gazan people are being forced to live; the Israeli security establishment shares this view and is calling for urgent change.
Only last week, the Israeli army’s Chief of General Staff Gadi Eizenkot warned in a Cabinet meeting that the Gaza Strip is on the verge of collapse due to the rapidly worsening conditions that are depriving the nearly two million people who live there of many of their most essential human needs. Similarly, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territories also cautioned last week that it could be only a matter of days until fuel for critical facilities such as hospitals and water and sanitation services runs out. The prospect of the spread of contagious diseases arising from such a situation threatens to further ratchet up an already catastrophic state of affairs. A place where 95 percent of the water is already undrinkable and the population receives, at most, eight hours of electricity a day, cannot afford a worsening of these conditions without disastrous consequences. 
Eizenkot’s assessment, which matches those of many other observers inside the Hamas-ruled enclave of Gaza, is that the rapid deterioration of its basic humanitarian conditions can only increase the likelihood of renewed full-scale hostilities between Israel and Hamas; an eventuality than neither side has any interest in or can benefit from. Three previous rounds of violence between Israel and Hamas left the place in ruins, with little or no political achievements for either combatant. Israel’s right-wing coalition government, as it has customarily done for the last 10 years, put the entire blame on Hamas and its combination of militancy and incompetence. And, although it is indeed the case that this Palestinian fundamentalist group, which has been in sole control of Gaza since 2007, has very little to boast about in terms of improved living conditions in Gaza, nevertheless, the brunt of the responsibility for the dire conditions there must be borne by Israel.
Atrocious conditions in the enclave are not only immoral but contain the seeds of future conflict and destruction.
Yossi Mekelberg
After all, it is the draconian restrictions enforced by Israel, exacerbated by those imposed by the Egyptian authorities at the single border crossing point of Rafah, that deny the residents of Gaza free movement to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the rest of the world. This has turned Gaza into the world’s largest open-air prison, in contravention of international humanitarian law. To continue to punish a civilian population for voting for Hamas more than a decade ago, or for not toppling it since then, is a folly entirely detached from reality. 
A November 2017 study led by none other than the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, concluded: “The more bleak the situation of Gazan residents becomes, the greater the chances of additional rounds of violence in this region in the future.” Yet the situation continues to grow bleaker and bleaker as nothing is done to improve it. Three-quarters of Gaza’s population is under the age of 25 and this young generation is the group most affected by unemployment and it is blaming Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the extreme hardships in Gaza, even as it has also lost hope in Hamas. 
While the Gaza Strip is in urgent need of massive long-term reconstruction, huge sums of investment money and changes in political conditions, there are immediate steps that can be taken that would rapidly change the conditions there. The Israeli human rights organization Gisha, which monitors conditions in Gaza, last week suggested a series of measures to mitigate the situation there. These included: Allowing an increase in the variety of Gaza-grown produce and processed food to be sold in Israel and the West Bank; radically revisiting the list of items prohibited from entering Gaza due to being classified as “dual-use” (for civilian or military use) that has hindered the development of infrastructure and industry; permitting civilians from Gaza to enter Israel to work; and allowing more people to travel to and from Gaza for economic and humanitarian reasons. These are only a few of the measures that, with the right approach, could be taken with minimal security risk to Israel in the short-term, and enormous dividends for everyone involved in the long-term.
However, no UN or think-tank report, no expert commentary or army general’s warning, will induce a change of approach toward Gaza as long as the Israeli government refuses to internalize that there is not, and never will be, a military solution. Moreover, the atrocious conditions there are not only immoral, but are increasingly counter-productive to Israel’s interests, containing as they do the seeds of future conflict and destruction. 
Hamas must bear some responsibility for much of what is happening in Gaza, and so must the Palestinian Authority for its petty, short-sighted approach that also helps exacerbate the situation. But it is first and foremost Israel, by its punitive blockade of the Gaza Strip and its general approach toward the Palestinians, that is setting the context of the current situation. And it is Israel’s military and economic might that should be employed for a genuine and constructive search for a peaceful dialogue, and not for constantly turning the screw on the Gazan people in ever more futile attempts to force them to capitulate. 
But any such approach would require a complete change of personnel in the Israeli government, to one that would see the people in Gaza not as pawns in the war with Hamas, but as fellow human beings that Israel could and should live in peace alongside.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. 
Twitter: @YMekelberg