The Gaza Strip is the scene of a humanitarian disaster that has nothing to do with natural causes – it is entirely human-made, a direct result of official Israeli policy. Israel can choose to change this policy and considerably improve the lives of Gaza’s residents. It can also choose to continue this cruel, unjustifiable policy, which sentences the nearly two million people living in Gaza to a life of abject poverty and nearly inhuman conditions.
In early September 2015, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published a report on the situation in Gaza after eight years of blockade and three rounds of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians. The report cautioned that without significant changes to Israel’s policy, Gaza has no chance of recovery and will become unlivable by 2020. Rather than change its policies in the time that has elapsed since the report, Israel has made them stricter and the situation has deteriorated.
Israel contends that its role as occupying power in the Gaza Strip ended in September 2005, when it dismantled all settlements there, withdrew its military forces and declared the end of the military government. Further to this position, Israel contends that it no longer has any obligations or responsibilities toward Gaza residents, other than minimal humanitarian duties designed to prevent a serious crisis in the Gaza Strip.
This position is entirely baseless. In the early years following the implementation of Israel’s Disengagement Plan, there was some vagueness regarding Israel’s legal obligations toward Gaza. However, since then, the conception of degree of responsibility as commensurate with degree of control has taken root. Though Israel is clearly no longer responsible for keeping the peace inside Gaza, and is not generally obliged to see to the welfare of its residents under the laws of occupation, it still shapes the daily lives of Gaza residents, and as such, bears responsibility towards them.
Although Israel declared an end to its military administration in Gaza, it continues to control critical aspects of life there. It controls all border crossings by land, apart from Rafah, as well as Gaza’s sea and air space. Consequently, it monitors almost all movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza and regulates it according to Israeli interests. This holds true even when Gaza residents wish only to transit through Israel in order to reach the West Bank or other countries. Until recently, the opening of Rafah Crossing depended solely on Egyptian authorities, who opened it for short durations only since the disengagement – and even then, subject to various restrictions they set. In early November 2017, control of the crossing was transferred to the Palestinian Authority. However, even if Rafah Crossing will be open for Gaza residents, using it to get to other countries requires to take a circuitous, dangerous route – which is much longer than reasonable for those wishing only to reach the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) or Jordan.
Given this reality, Israel cannot shirk its responsibility for the lives of Gaza residents. The degree of responsibility varies in keep with the scope of control it wields. Where Israeli policy affects Gaza residents either directly or indirectly, Israel has a duty to also take into account how this policy affects them.
The blockade and its ramifications
Isolating Gaza from the rest of the world, including separating it from the West Bank, is part of a longstanding Israeli policy. The implementation began in the 1990s, with the imposition of a closure on all the Occupied Territories and the introduction of the requirement for every Palestinian from these territories – with the exception of areas annexed to Israel – to request a personal permit to enter Israel, even if only for the purpose of travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or abroad. Over the years, Israel has made it increasingly difficult to obtain these permits.
After the second intifada broke out, Israel tightened the restrictions on Palestinian travel, imposing serious restrictions on travel to and from the Gaza Strip, and cutting it off from the West Bank almost completely. Entry of Gaza residents into Israel for the purpose of family visits or reunification with a spouse was prohibited. Visits by Palestinian citizens of Israel and residents of East Jerusalem to relatives in Gaza were reduced to a minimum. In addition, Israel severely restricted the ability of the entire population of Gaza to travel abroad, with many prohibited from doing so altogether. Import and export were restricted and often halted. Israel also banned most Gaza residents from working inside Israel, taking away the source of income of tens of thousands. The restrictions Israel imposed on the movement of goods and workers caused a deep recession in Gaza, impaired its residents’ earning capacity and caused a sharp decline in living conditions. In the summer of 2007, after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, Israel used its control over the crossings to put Gaza under a blockade, turning almost two million people into prisoners inside the Gaza Strip, effecting an economic collapse and propelling Gaza residents into dependency on international aid.
As part of the blockade, Israel prohibited travel in and out of Gaza, the import of goods into Gaza – including restrictions on food items, toys and paper – and export to Israel, the West Bank or foreign countries. According to documents exposed in October 2010 following a Freedom of Information petition filed by the Gisha organization, it emerged that Israel had employed a “deliberate reductive policy”, based on calculations of the minimal caloric intake required for Gaza residents to survive.
In June 2010, following international pressure on Israel after the takeover of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, Israel decided to lift some of these restrictions. Among other things, Israel agreed to expand the list of goods cleared for entry into Gaza and allowed the entry of building materials for public and housing projects – under international supervision.
As part of this new policy, Israel replaced the narrow list of items allowed into Gaza with a list of strictly prohibited items, such as weapons, as well as a list of “dual-use” items that Israel believes could have both civilian and military uses, which require an individual permit. The second list includes hundreds of items, without which the development of factories and the restoration of civilian infrastructure cannot proceed. The restrictions on export remain in place, leaving Gaza isolated and with no real opportunity for economic development. Aside from a very small number of mitigating measures introduced over the years, the blockade continues.
One aspect of the blockade is the reduction of the area where fishing is allowed in Gaza. The Oslo Accords stipulate a range of 20 nautical miles (about 37 km) off the Gaza shoreline, but Israel has never allowed fishing farther than 12 nautical miles out to sea. Over the years, Israel has gradually narrowed the fishing zone, sometimes to three nautical miles only, and currently between six and nine. The Israeli military also restricts fishing in areas bordering Israel and Egypt. The military fires at fishermen it alleges have sailed beyond the restricted zone, arrests them and confiscates their equipment. In so doing, Israel prevents Gaza fishermen from reaching the rich fishing grounds located further out to sea, impedes the ability of thousands of fishermen and people working in related sectors to provide for themselves and their families, and denies Gaza residents an essential source of food.
The blockade has driven Gaza’s economy into collapse. In the second quarter of 2017, unemployment reached 44%. Among women, the rate was 71.5%; in the under 29 age bracket, it was 61.9%. Some 80% of Gaza’s residents depend on humanitarian aid, and about 60% suffer from food insecurity. In the year 2000, before the blockade was imposed, Gaza’s unemployment rate was 18.9%.
Infrastructure and public services in Gaza are in dire condition. Some 95% of the water pumped in the Gaza Strip is contaminated and undrinkable. Residents must buy purified water. Electricity is supplied for just a few hours every day, partly because of a fuel shortage caused by high costs, and partly because of restrictions Israel imposes on the entry of spare parts to maintain existing systems – including repairing the power station Israel bombed in 2006. The electricity shortage affects water and sewage systems as well, which rely on a constant supply of power and barely function without it.
The lack of consistent power supply has disastrous effects. Routine power cuts damage medical equipment. Hospitals are forced to rely on generators and scale back services, including delaying non-urgent surgeries and releasing patients early. The intermittent power supply also impedes the routine operation of water pumps and wells. This interferes with the supply of water for household use and public institutions, which has been greatly reduced. Residents have no choice but to cut back on the amount of water they drink and buy desalinated drinking water from private suppliers. It is estimated that 68% of the desalinated water is also contaminated, increasing the risk of disease spreading among the population. Sewage treatment facilities are not fully functional. Treatment cycles have been reduced, and sewage is pumped into the sea after being only partially treated.
The blackouts also keep Gaza residents from leading reasonable lives, in a world where relying on a regular supply of power is a basic right. These blackouts preclude normal use of washing machines, refrigerators, water heating tanks and more. These appliances are an inseparable part of life for billions of people all over the world, including people who live mere kilometers away. In Gaza, residents can only use them during the few hours in which power is available.
The level of health services offered in the Gaza Strip falls far short of meeting the needs of the population, and many essential treatments are not available there. Israel prevents doctors from traveling to medical conferences and seminars to keep abreast of innovations in their field. In addition, bringing new medical equipment into Gaza, or spare parts to repair existing equipment, requires Israeli consent, which is often given after many delays and sometimes, not given at all.
Rounds of fighting
Since the disengagement in 2005, Israel has launched three “military operations in the Gaza Strip. In these rounds of fighting, Israel killed thousands of people, destroyed thousands of structures and severely harmed infrastructure that was already on the brink of collapse, exacerbating the already dire situation in Gaza. The continued blockade prevents reconstruction, and tens of thousands of persons are still homeless in Gaza.
Operation Cast Lead: On 27 December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, which lasted until 18 January 2009. According to data collected by B’Tselem, Israel killed 1,391 Palestinians during the fighting, at least 759 of them civilians who had not taken part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were under the age of 18. Israel also caused extensive damage to structures and to infrastructure, including electricity, water and sewage facilities that were on the brink of collapse even before the fighting and were now rendered completely dysfunctional. According to UN figures, Israel destroyed more than 3,500 homes, leaving tens of thousands of people without shelter or a home to return to. During the offensive, Palestinians fired rocket and mortar shells toward Israel, with the deliberate intention of harming civilians. Three Israeli civilians and one member of the Israeli security forces were killed as a result. In addition, nine Israeli soldiers were killed, four of them from friendly fire.
Operation Pillar of Defense: On 14 November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense. The fighting lasted eight days, during which, according to B’Tselem figures, Israel killed 167 Palestinians, at least 87 of whom had not participated in the fighting. Of these, 32 were under the age of 18. Over the course of the fighting, four Israeli civilians and two members of the security forces were killed by rockets that Palestinians fired from the Gaza Strip.
Operation Protective Edge: On 8 July 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. The fighting lasted 50 days, until 26 August 2014, with Israel wreaking havoc on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. According to B’Tselem figures, during the fighting, Israel killed 2,202 Palestinians, including 1,391 who did not take part in the fighting. About a quarter of all the casualties, 546, were under age 18 and 526 of them did not take part in the fighting. During the fighting, Palestinians killed six Israeli civilians, including one child, and 63 soldiers. Three other soldiers were killed by friendly fire, and another was killed in an accident.
“No go” zones
Israel treats an area inside the Gaza Strip, near the border fence, as its own territory, using it to create a “buffer zone” inside the already narrow Strip. After the second intifada broke out, the military declared a vast area near the Gaza-Israel border, much of it farmland, off-limits to Palestinians. It never officially announced this policy or clarified to the residents which areas exactly were off limits to them, which increases the danger they face.
To enforce this access ban, the military has introduced open-fire regulations that permit firing at Palestinians found inside the zone – even if they pose no threat to anyone’s life. The implementation of these regulations has resulted in the death of 83 Palestinians who did not take part in fighting from the time the Disengagement Plan was implemented in September 2005 until September 2017, excluding rounds of fighting. Of these casualties, 39 were killed when they were in these zones as part of their daily routine, including local residents and farmers. Twelve more people were killed when they approached the fence, planning to cross it in search of work inside Israel.
In addition, 28 Palestinians were killed in protests held near the fence, on the Palestinian side of it. Eight of them took part in hostilities – though were unarmed at the time of their death. In recent years, weekly demonstrations such as these have taken place in several locations, with hundreds participating. Protesters set tires on fire, attempt to hang Palestinian flags on the fence, damage or cross it, and throw stones at soldiers stationed on the Israeli side. In most cases, groups of soldiers stand protected behind concrete blocks or dirt mounds, dozens of meters away from the fence.
Though soldiers use live fire in these incidents without facing mortal danger, in areas that the military is fully aware are inhabited by civilians, no one is held accountable for these killings – in keeping with Israel’s overall law enforcement policy regarding the killing of Palestinians by security forces.
Another measure employed by the military to enforce the prohibition on approaching the fence is spraying herbicides on crops near the fence – on the Gazan side. The spraying is done without advance notice, and without alerting residents that they must protect crops that lie several hundred meters away from the fence, which are also harmed by the spraying. Israel has also destroyed vast areas near the border during the rounds of fighting, including demolishing entire neighborhoods.
In the past, Gaza residents grew fruit trees and kept hothouses in these areas. Some were used for grazing livestock raised for food. However, because of Israel’s policy, and after the military destroyed various crops in the area, many farmers had to switch to crops that require less maintenance and that the army cannot claim block its field of vision. Today, the area is mostly home to dryland farming crops, which require no irrigation, such as wheat, barley, beans and various kinds of vegetables.