Israel’s approach to the Gaza Strip has never been static; it changes according to the government’s priorities and short or long-term strategic goals. As early as 1991, Israel implemented the permit regime, regulating the movement of Palestinians in and out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in the case of the latter, it went on to construct a perimeter fence in the mid-1990s.
During the Second Intifada, the Gaza Strip was subjected to fierce Israeli military attacks, though none of the assaults were as brutal as “Operation Cast Lead” in December 2008-January 2009. The so-called “disengagement” plan of 2005, resulting in the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza and the redeployment of Israeli forces based there, heralded another change, a process shaped subsequently by the results of the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006.
Following Hamas’s electoral success and resultant victorious struggle with Fatah for control in Gaza in 2007, Israel imposed a tight blockade of the Gaza Strip, restricting drastically the kind of goods which were allowed in and out, as well as reducing the number of Palestinians granted exit permits. As a result, and compounded by the slaughter of 2009, many activists around the world began campaigning around a demand to “end the siege”.
In its propaganda efforts, Israel and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) focus on the number of lorries entering Gaza each week; they rarely, if ever, mention the issue of exports. This is because while there has been an easing of restrictions of goods allowed into the Strip, Israel’s block on goods going out continues to damage the Palestinian economy.
As of this summer, and with the exception of two shipments of date bars, “for the past five years there has been a complete ban on the sale of Gaza-made products in the West Bank and Israel”. For example: over four weeks in April, 1.7 million people were allowed to export just 20 truckloads of produce from Gaza. Prior to the Israeli restrictions, “Gaza exported an average of 86 truckloads a day, 85 per cent of which went to the West Bank and Israel”. In 2011, monthly exports from Gaza were around 2 per cent of the corresponding figure for January to June 2007.
The Israel-imposed ban on exports is a key part of a broader “separation policy”, which, in the words of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, IDF Major General Eitan Dangot, is intended to “separate” the Gaza Strip from the West Bank to put pressure on Hamas. As journalist Amira Hass has insisted, however, this policy of separation “that does not allow the populations of the two parts of the same geographic entity (according to the Oslo Accords) to mix…is a policy of de facto disconnection, which began 15 years before Hamas took power in Gaza in 2006”.
The separation policy can be summarised by “the two main restrictions” it encompasses: “the prohibition on marketing goods from Gaza in Israel and the West Bank and the narrow criteria for travel by individuals between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank”. The latter includes examples like the five female students from Gaza prevented from travelling to the West Bank as part of what the Israeli state has admitted is “a blanket ban on travel for all students from Gaza who wish to study in the West Bank”.
There are a number of goals being advanced through Israel’s separation policy. First, it prevents the emergence of a genuinely independent Palestinian state in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Fatah-Hamas division has served Israeli purposes very nicely, but as previously noted the de facto splitting of the two areas predates the internal Palestinian conflict.
Secondly, the isolation of the Gaza Strip is part of continued efforts to prevent Hamas from being granted international legitimacy, and ensure that the organisation is primarily seen through the prism of violent confrontation – the “terrorist” government of an “enemy entity”.
Thirdly, recall one of the strategic reasons for the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, namely to enable Israel to “write off” 1.7 million Palestinians from its demographic calculations. These days, Israeli commentators urge solutions for the West Bank of various kinds, often omitting entirely even to mention the Gaza Strip. Fenced off, separated; one recalls Yitzhak Rabin’s words in 1992 that he wished Gaza “would just sink into the sea”.
What all of this means is that the language of, and campaign focus on, “siege” and “blockade” is insufficient, and sometimes incorrect. It goes without saying that Palestinians in Gaza face dire economic circumstances: unemployment reached 31.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2012 (compared to 20.1 per cent in the West Bank). More than 70 per cent of the population receives humanitarian aid. The IDF maintains a three-mile fishing limit and perimeter fence “buffer zone” with deadly force.
Nevertheless, analysis and campaigning can’t stand still as conditions change on the ground. Political developments in Egypt have had a positive impact on the ability of Palestinians to enter and leave Gaza through Rafah. And as Israeli NGO Gisha notes, in the past five years
Israel’s policy of closure on the Strip has undergone important changes. Today Gaza is more opened up towards the outside world, however sweeping and indiscriminate restrictions on travel and on movement of goods between Gaza and the West Bank and Israel remain nearly unchanged.
The focus must be on the way in which Israel is deliberately separating Gaza from the West Bank, with a policy of collective punishment that hits families, students and businesses hard. “While the number of individual exits to Egypt has risen nearly to pre-closure numbers, movement to Israel and the West Bank remains at less than 1 per cent of the volume before significant restrictions were imposed at the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000”. It is time for Israel’s “separation policy” to receive as much attention as the “siege” in advocacy efforts in the West.
Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is “Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.