Gaza’s 15 years of horror under crushing Israeli blockade
Who would have imagined that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip that started 15 years ago this month would not only still be in place today, but even reinforced? That is the scenario for this tiny strip of land that now has a population of about 2.3 million.
Some 800,000 Palestinian children in Gaza have never known anything but the blockade. They have never left this human-made hell. They have never seen a train. The only planes they see are Israeli military aircraft. Electricity is limited. The water is not even fit for animals. They are condemned to this from birth.
So how has life in Gaza — in what many have described as the world’s largest open-air prison — changed over those 15 years? It has not increased in size but it has more inmates. In fact, the area for the prisoners has even shrunk. Israel has largely forbidden farmers from accessing their lands up to 300 meters from the border fence, as well as tightening how far out fishermen can fish.
Let us be clear, as memories are short. Even before June 2007, Gaza was occupied and access and egress were challenging. You had to have permits to leave. In 2007, the restrictions just tightened.
What happened in 2007 was that the Israeli measures of control were taken to unprecedented levels. Israel designated Gaza a hostile entity following the takeover by Hamas. Israeli officials referred to pursuing “economic warfare” against the Strip. Over the years, this rhetoric has calmed, replaced with more cosmetic pragmatism as to what can be let in or out. The policy framing has not altered.
After Hamas’ election victory in 2006, Dov Weissglas, then-adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that Gaza residents should go on a “diet.” Israel argued that punishing all Gazans would force them to kick out Hamas — an empty argument, just as it is when some argue for punishing the Syrian population so that they get rid of Bashar Assad.
That Israel decided to refashion Gazan eating habits encapsulates its officials’ attitude to the Strip. Israeli leaders felt entitled to do anything to this captive population. Collective punishment is, for Israel, totally acceptable, even though it is explicitly illegal under international law. If Palestinian militants fire a rocket, then a punishment for all the population usually follows. For example, when militants sent fire kites into Israel, the reaction was to further shrink the permitted maritime area for fishing; a totally unrelated action.
Hamas’ rule is autocratic, far from progressive, and the group has a terrible human rights record, but the people of Gaza are being punished twice, with Hamas’ misrule combined with this crushing blockade.
Israel controls everything that enters the Strip. In 2015, it was compelled to reveal that it ran a list of dual-use products that were banned, many of which were items essential to construction, such as cement, steel and wood. The list changes but Israel refuses to reveal what is on it today. There is no oversight or right to appeal.
Genuine economic life has ground to a near-halt. Gaza has been heading backward in a process of acute de-development. Palestinian workers could no longer enter Israel after 2007. Many made a great deal of the recent Israeli decision to create a quota of 20,000 work permits for Gazans but, according to the Israeli organization Gisha, Israel has not issued that many permits. Even those who do get allowed out will not benefit from the same rights afforded to Israeli workers — as yet, they are not even designated as workers.
The humanitarian situation is dire. According to the World Bank, 60 percent live below the poverty line, with an estimated 80 percent reliant on international aid — funding that is very much in decline. Rasha Al-Moghany from Medical Aid for Palestinians tells me that the Strip also suffers from “chronic shortages of medical supplies and equipment. An average of 41 percent of drugs and 26 percent of disposables were at zero stock or on a less than one month’s supply in 2021.”
But what if the blockade was never imposed? A UN exercise back in 2017 suggested that the poverty rate would have been about 15 percent, not 60 percent. In 2020, the UN estimated that Israel’s blockade had cost Gaza $16.7 billion.
Perhaps the most painful part is the isolation, not just from the rest of the world but the rest of Palestine. West Bank and Gazan Palestinians have grown apart. Few in either area have been able to visit the other in the last 15 years. What meetings have transpired occur externally. Incredibly for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank is harder to visit than nearly anywhere else.
Egypt also contributes as the junior party to the blockade. The Rafah crossing for Palestinians opens for limited periods but, under international agreements, goods cannot be exported via Egypt.
The blockade cannot be seen in isolation from Israel’s military operations. The prison is fully controlled and, if the prisoners get unruly, they get bombed. Gaza has not just failed to recover from the war last May. It is still recovering from the wars of 2006, 2008-09, 2012 and 2014, as well as the Great March of Return.
Rubble is still being removed. Homes are yet to be rebuilt. Water pipes have often not been replaced, which is a challenge when Israel does not permit the entry of steel pipes with a diameter greater than 1.5 inches. Gaza also floods all too easily, as the authorities do not have the materials to install proper drainage systems. Damage to the sewage system means the stench of raw sewage permeates the air.
Collective punishment is, for Israel, totally acceptable, even though it is explicitly illegal under international law.
If Gazans are traumatized by the isolation and lack of a horizon, this is perhaps nothing compared to the acute trauma of the bombings. About four-fifths of children in Gaza report emotional distress, leading to bed-wetting, sleeplessness and restlessness. Children spend their time terrified of when the next bombing or the next war is going to start. The adults suffer too.
Is there anyone who does not believe that the closure of Gaza will last to its 20th or even 25th anniversary? It is hard to see where the drive for change will come from. Israeli leaders do not care. Gaza is a situation to be managed, not resolved. Only if there is a war does the international community show a flicker of interest, and even then it only pushes for a return to the status quo ante.
For Palestinians in Gaza, the unthinkable is happening. For decades, they would remain defiant — they would never give up. They would never leave. Today, this has changed. Many are even considering the catastrophically dangerous sea routes across the central Mediterranean, putting themselves in the hands of dangerous people smugglers. The horror of this is that it is all human-made. Worse, it is part of a deliberate Israeli policy. The world should be ashamed.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. Twitter: @Doylech