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How the Israeli government whitewashes the Gaza blockade

'Dateline', a show on Australian television station SBS One, broadcast a report on Tuesday night called 'The Survivor's Guide to Gaza'. The segment was based on a week-long visit to the Gaza Strip by correspondent Brett Mason and producer Will West.

Dateline has published, in full, a response they received from the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli state body that manages the day to day civilian affairs of the military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

COGAT's statement – poorly written and sometimes barely comprehensible – is an instructive read in what it distorts, and omits, with regards to the ongoing, internationally-condemned Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The response begins by stating that "despite of Hamas' terror regime that calls clearly for the destruction of the State of Israel, we promote extensive civil policy towards the Gazan residents." But Israel is an occupying power; it has obligations towards the occupied civilian population, regardless of the actions or views of Hamas or any other political factions.

The standard with which to evaluate COGAT's so-called "civil policy" is not 'goodwill' or 'generosity', but Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law. In fact, of course, this 'civil policy' is rather less than civil. Let's put some of COGAT's statistics into context.

"Over 1000 crossings are registered every day at the Erez Crossing for medical treatments, business affairs, conferences and more."

This sounds impressive – but before the Second Intifada broke out, about 26,000 labourers alone crossed via Erez daily. In May 2016, there were less than 15,000 exits of Palestinians via Erez; the monthly average January-September 2000 was more than half a million.

The vast majority of the 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, excluding traders with longer-term permits and medical patients and their companions, are still barred from travelling to the West Bank for the purpose of work, study, or to see relatives (other than "exceptional humanitarian" cases).

"Every day, over 850 trucks loaded with medical supply, construction materials, food and so on into Gaza. As of today, over 2 million tons of goods enter Gaza since the beginning of 2016."

These are not donations by Israeli authorities; they are goods and materials purchased by the United Nations, NGOs, and businesses in the Gaza Strip. While the amount of goods entering Gaza in 2016 to date is certainly an improvement on recent years, it is still below pre-blockade figures.

The more important point is that the spike in the number of trucks entering Gaza is the result of the monitored entry of construction materials into the Gaza Strip, mostly designated for repairing the massive damage to buildings and infrastructure caused by Operation Protective Edge.

In other words, most of what enters Gaza is construction materials to repair the destruction wrought by Israeli offensives, or humanitarian aid to offset the economic consequences of blockade.

"All sorts of goods enter Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing. Following credible information, Hamas exploits those goods for terror purposes. The entry of dual use material, which may be used for terror purposes, requires the examination of the security forces."

According to Israeli NGO Gisha, Israel maintains an "extensive" list of 'dual-use' items, including items "whose use is overwhelmingly civilian and critical for civilian life."

Last year, the Israeli authorities added items to the list of dual-use materials, including uninterrupted power supply (UPS) components (vital given the grave shortages of electricity supply), x-ray machines, and fiberglass (used to repair fishing boats).

In August 2015, COGAT reduced the thickness of permissible wood, as well as adding wood glue and lacquer to the list, a decision that "had a very negative impact on…temporary housing solutions" for displaced Palestinians, in the words of the UN.

"Many international officials, including the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, have expressed their impression by the progress of the reconstruction [since 2014]."

According to COGAT, "over 100,000 houses are in different stages of the reconstruction process", citing a "UN assessment." The statement adds: "Israel allows the entry of construction materials in accordance with the demand and the need."

What COGAT omitted – and they must know the figures, given that they clearly read UN publications – is that just 3,000 of the 18,000 destroyed or severely damaged homes have been "rebuilt or otherwise rendered habitable" (UN OCHA report, April 2016). 75,000 Palestinians remain displaced.

That April report described "progress on reconstruction" for displaced Palestinians as "slow", citing factors that included "ongoing Israeli restrictions." The most urgent measure needed? "The removal of [Israeli] restrictions on the import of building materials, towards a full lifting of the blockade."

Finally, COGAT's statement says nothing about the quantity of goods exiting the Gaza Strip. Before the closure, 85 percent of Gaza made-goods were sold in its natural markets – the West Bank and Israel. In 2016 to date, however, an average of just 181 truckloads of goods per month have exited the Gaza Strip – just 23 percent of the equivalent figure in 2005.

Responding, Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, said it was "important to see this from the point of view of the victims of the 2014 conflict, those who two years on are still homeless, living in the ruins of their damaged and destroyed homes, those displaced, living rough or living in sub-standard rented accommodation."

"More generally, the blockade on air, land and sea on Gaza entered its tenth year in June 2016; together with recurrent cycles of conflict and armed violence, it has a profound socio-economic and psychosocial impact on the lives of the people in Gaza."

Gunness added: "Most significantly perhaps, Secretary General Ban recently condemned the Gaza blockade as a collective punishment for which he said there must be accountability."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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