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15 years of failed experiments: Myths and facts about the Israeli siege on Gaza

Palestinians in Gaza protest against the closures imposed by Israeli occupation on 22 July 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]
Palestinians in Gaza protest against the closures imposed by Israeli occupation on 22 July 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Fifteen years have passed since Israel imposed a total siege on the Gaza Strip, subjecting nearly two million Palestinians to one of the longest and most cruel politically-motivated blockades in history. Back then, the Israeli government justified its siege as the only way to protect Israel from Palestinian "terrorism and rocket attacks". This is the occupation state's official line to this day, and yet not many Israelis — certainly not in government, the media or even ordinary people — would argue that Israel today is safer than it was prior to June 2007.

It is widely understood that Israel imposed the siege as a response to the Hamas takeover of the Strip, following a brief, violent confrontation between the movement, which is the current de facto government in Gaza, and its main political rival Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank. However, the isolation of Gaza was planned years before the Hamas-Fatah clash, or even the legislative election victory of Hamas in January 2006.

In fact, the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was determined to redeploy Israeli forces out of Gaza long before these dates, making the siege possible. Culminating in the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in August-September 2005, the plan was proposed by Sharon in 2003, approved by his government in 2004 and finally adopted by the Knesset in February 2005.

The "disengagement" was an Israeli tactic intended to remove a few thousand illegal Jewish settlers from occupied Gaza — to go to other illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank — while redeploying the Israeli army from crowded population centres in the Gaza Strip to the nominal border areas. This was the actual start of the Gaza siege.

The above assertion was even clear to James Wolfensohn, who was appointed by the Middle East Quartet as the Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement. In 2010, he reached a similar conclusion: "Gaza had been effectively sealed off from the outside world since the Israeli disengagement… and the humanitarian and economic consequences for the Palestinian population were profound."

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The ultimate motive behind the "disengagement" was not Israel's security, or even to starve the Palestinians in Gaza as a form of collective punishment. The latter was a natural outcome of a much more sinister political plot, as communicated by Sharon's own senior advisor at the time, Dov Weisglass. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in October 2004, Weisglass put it plainly: "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process." How? "When you freeze [the peace] process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem."

Not only was this Israel's ultimate motive behind the disengagement and subsequent siege of Gaza, but also, according to the seasoned Israeli politician, it was all done "with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of [the US] Congress." The US president at the time was none other than George W. Bush.

All of this took place before Palestine's legislative election, Hamas's victory and the Hamas-Fatah clash. The latter merely served as a convenient justification for what had already been discussed, "ratified" by Washington and implemented.

End Gaza Siege! – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

For Israel, the siege was a political ploy which acquired additional meaning and value as time passed. In response to the accusation that Israel was starving Palestinians in Gaza, Weisglass was very quick to reply: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."

What was then understood as a facetious, albeit thoughtless statement, turned out to be actual Israeli policy, as revealed in a 2008 report which was made available in 2012. Thanks to the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, the "redlines [for] food consumption in the Gaza Strip" — composed by the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — were made known. It emerged that Israel was calculating the minimum number of calories necessary to keep Gaza's population alive, a number that is "adjusted to culture and experience" in the Strip.

The rest is history. Gaza's suffering is absolute, with 98 per cent of the Strip's water undrinkable; hospitals lacking essential supplies and life-saving medications; and movement in and out of the territory more or less prohibited, with relatively few minor exceptions.

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Even so, Israel has failed miserably, with none of its objectives achieved. Tel Aviv hoped that the "disengagement" would compel the international community to redefine the legal status of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. Despite pressure from Washington, that never happened. Gaza remains part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories as defined in international law.

Furthermore, Israel's September 2007 designation of Gaza as an "enemy entity" and a "hostile territory" changed little, apart from allowing the Israeli government to carry out several devastating wars against the Palestinians in the enclave, starting in late 2008.

None of these wars have served a long-term Israeli strategy successfully. Instead, Gaza continues to fight back on a much larger scale than ever before, frustrating the calculations of Israeli leaders, a fact which became clear in the befuddled, disturbing language to which they resorted. During one of the deadliest Israeli wars on Gaza, in July 2014, right-wing Knesset member Ayelet Shaked wrote on Facebook that the war was "not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority." Instead, according to Shaked, who a year later became Israel's Minister of Justice, this was "a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people."

In the final analysis, the governments of Sharon, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett all failed to isolate Gaza from the greater Palestinian body; break the will of the Palestinians in the Strip; or ensure Israeli security at the expense of the Palestinians.

Moreover, Israel has fallen victim to its own hubris. While prolonging the siege will achieve no short or long-term strategic value, lifting the siege, from Israel's viewpoint, would be tantamount to an admission of defeat, and could empower Palestinians in the West Bank to emulate the Gaza model. This lack of certainty further accentuates the political crisis and lack of strategic vision that has defined all Israeli governments for nearly two decades.

Israel's political experiment in Gaza has backfired, inevitably so. The only way out is for the siege of Gaza to be lifted completely. Not eased; lifted. Completely. And this time, for good.

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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