Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip has been a huge point of contention since it began in 2007. The blockade covers land, sea, and air, and is supported by Egypt, which largely sealed its borders to Gaza after Hamas came to victory in 2006. Israel maintains that the blockade is necessary to prevent rocket attacks on its cities, as the blockade prevents Hamas from obtaining weaponry. Yet critics point out that it is not just military supplies that cannot enter Gaza, but basic construction materials, medical supplies, and food stuffs. The issue came to international attention in 2010, when a flotilla of activists attempted to break the blockade and carry humanitarian aid into Gaza. Nine were killed when the Israeli navy entered the ship.
The incident shone a spotlight onto the harsh blockade of Gaza. At one stage, prohibited materials included coriander, ginger, nutmeg and newspapers. A relaxation of the rules in June 2009 meant that processed hummus was allowed in, but not hummus with extras such as pine nuts or mushrooms. These small details highlight the excessive nature of the restrictions.
One of the biggest issues has been building materials. The strict restrictions on goods going into Gaza meant that it was impossible to start reconstruction work after intensive air strikes on the city in December 2008. A leaked UN report in 2009 warned that the blockade was "devastating livelihoods" and causing gradual "de-development". It pointed out that glass was prohibited; it was therefore impossible to repair shattered windows to keep out the winter rain.
Things have slightly improved since then. Israel began to ease the blockade under international pressure in the aftermath of the 2010 flotilla incident, and announced further relaxations at the end of 2012. However, the specificities of restrictions remain subject to constant change. In September, there appeared to be a breakthrough on construction, when Israel announced that building materials for private projects would be allowed into the Gaza Strip for the first time in six years. This was welcome news: Gaza had been struggling after the Egyptian military shut down tunnels used to smuggle goods into the Palestinian territory. The Israeli defence ministry said that 350 trucks of cement, steel, and concrete would go into Gaza every week.
But it was short lived. This week, Israel has frozen the shipment of building materials into Gaza, after discovering what it describes as a sophisticated "terror tunnel" into Israel from Palestinian land. A spokesman for the Israeli defense ministry told the AFP news agency: "Due to security reasons, [the army] decided to stop for now the transfer of building materials into Gaza." He did not say how long the ban would last.
Building materials were prohibited for so long because Israel feared that Hamas would use them to build tunnels for attacks on Israel. Hamas has responded angrily, accusing Israel of "exaggerating things" and "trying to justify the blockade and the continuous aggression on the Gaza Strip." Israel was equally strong in its resolve. "Since construction materials were used to dig the tunnel, I instructed, over the weekend, to halt the transfer of these materials to the Gaza Strip," said defense minister Moshe Yaalon.
There is no denying that tunnels have been used in the past to stage attacks on Israel; in 2006, Palestinians captured soldier Gilad Shalit and kept him in captivity for five years. But there is also a question to be raised about restricting basic humanitarian supplies under any circumstances. "Security concerns" is an elastic term which sometimes refers to valid concerns; a UN report in 2011 found that the naval blockade was legal, but that this should be viewed separately to the restriction of goods overland. But "security concerns" can also be expanded to restrict goods which are required for basic human dignity while posing no threat to security. The Israeli human rights group Gisha said that along with 70 lorry loads of building materials for the private sector, 60 loads for humanitarian projects had been due to enter Gaza on Sunday.
Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who ran a UN panel on Israel, concluded in 2009 that Israel was imposing "a blockade which amounted to collective punishment". The exact terms of the restrictions may have changed since then, but his words still ring true.
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