As I type this, a motley group of ships are sailing from Cyprus towards the Gaza Strip in an effort to deliver 10,000 tonnes of supplies, in direct opposition to Israel’s blockade of the territory. The blockade has been in place since June 2007, when Hamas won a violent conflict with Fatah after coming first in the Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006 (a victory unrecognised by the international community). The problem with fostering democracy is that sometimes the “wrong people” win. Fatah was ejected from the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is strongest, but retained control of the West Bank. Well, as much control as it is allowed by Israel, anyway.
Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, which established the Palestinian Authority and gave it limited administrative powers over the Palestinian territories, Israel maintained control over Gaza’s land borders, its airspace, and its territorial waters. To that end, Israel built a barrier around Gaza that was mostly torn down during the 2000 Intifada, then rebuilt. Gaza was completely sealed off in 2004, when a barrier was built along the Gaza-Egypt border. In 2005, Ariel Sharon managed to engineer a full withdrawal of Israeli “settlers” and IDF soldiers from the Gaza Strip, though Israel retained control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, coastline, power (which mostly comes from Israel), and of course its import and exports. The withdrawal has been criticised from all sides (as would any substantial action in such a polarised environment) and can be viewed as a real attempt to advance the peace process, or as a cynical move to try to get rid of the “Gaza problem”. However, Sharon’s chief of staff pointed to a third, more strategic, reason – to make the peace process more difficult, and delay the formation of a Palestinian state.
No-one has been able to get hold of a definitive list of allowed imports, but it can be said that only the bare necessities are sent in – basic foodstuffs, clothing, some medical and school supplies, some chemicals and fertilisers, things like that. The amount of food let in is much less than previously – according to UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk “only barely enough food and fuel … to stave off mass famine and disease”. Falk has been criticised as blatantly biased against Israel, and there’s something to be said for that, but he’s not alone in condemning the consequences of the blockade. Oxfam, Amnesty International, other aid groups, the UN Secretary-General and the Pope have all called for its lifting or easing. The primary objection is that it constitutes “collective punishment” of innocent Gazans for the crimes of its Hamas leaders. From the Goldstone report:
Israeli acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their rights to access a court of law and an effective remedy, could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, has been committed.
The current situation is difficult to classify. This is important, because occupying powers have obligations under international law that mere neighbours do not. Israel claims that, since it has no-one inside Gaza, clearly it is no longer occupied. The fact that Israel has effective control of everything going in and out, barring the smugglers’ tunnels, is problematic for that argument. Most independent assessments have concluded that Israel is still occupying Gaza even if it has no troops on the ground, including the authoritative judgment of the International Court of Justice. This means that, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel has responsibility for the wellbeing of the Gaza population.
Israel takes a different view. It says that since the withdrawal, it is in a state of armed conflict with an entity ruled by terrorists, and therefore a blockade is a perfectly legitimate tactic. It cites the many economic sanctions used elsewhere, and the validity of maritime blockades in times of armed conflict. If we take the claims at face value, they seem valid. However, no sanctions have ever reached the level of utter domination that Israel has over Gaza, which has been described as “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The economic effects are devastating, far beyond any previous examples of sanctions. Gaza is effectively undergoing undevelopment, if I may use such an ugly neologism. Also, it’s not simply a matter of Israel choosing what to do with its own borders – if it were, the maritime blockade would not exist. Interestingly, the blockade of the coast does not just consist of stopping foreign ships arriving with potentially dangerous goods, but also the extraordinary restriction of Palestinian fishing boats from going more than three nautical miles from shore, instead of the previously agreed 20 nautical miles. Such a restriction has all the hallmarks of punitive, rather than preventative, action.
Alternative courses of action for Israel – that would be in keeping with their assertions of self-defense – are difficult to imagine. They are attacked regularly by Hamas and the various Palestinian resistance groups. Their citizens are killed and terrorised. It’s easy to see why they would seek to limit the ability of their enemy to attack them. The idea that they face an existential threat from Palestinians is laughable, but neither can they sit idly by and hope the rockets miss. Of course, “sit idly” is not what the status quo involves – rather, it is an active and aggressive occupation.
Despite all that, perpetual blockade is unsustainable. Though whether the so-called Freedom Flotilla is the harbinger of change is debatable. Most likely, they will simply be boarded and deported, the supplies distributed by the Israelis to the Gaza Strip, and victory claimed by both sides. Israel can’t be forced to let go of the Palestinians, and the terror tactics of Hamas and the rest will never beget a free Palestine. It’s as close to an insoluble problem as has ever existed in international relations, with all sides locked into patterns of behaviour that prevent the very result they crave. I do not envy the task facing the leaders and their successors.