Only freedom of movement can save the Gaza Strip from imminent collapse

Gaza’s condition could improve if Israel lets Gazans work, thereby increasing their income sources. But the government’s policy is to divide the Strip from the West Bank– which only serves Hamas

Amira Hass | Jun. 28, 2018 | 3:43 AM |  1

Given the Gaza Strip’s well known, dangerous economic and environmental situation, any technical solution proposed, assuming it’s implemented, could slow the deterioration a bit.

So would minor relaxations of the blockade, such as have been reported in recent leaks to the Israeli media. But their importance has been exaggerated.

The only thing that could really save Gaza is rapid and immediate growth in jobs and revenue sources. No technical solution can rescue Gaza from the distress it is in after 27 years of Israeli closure, whose direct results are unemployment among almost half the labor force and even more among the young, the impoverishment of formerly prosperous industries such as commerce, manufacturing and construction, a decline in the quality of education and health and a brain drain. Neither can mobilizing donations from the Gulf States – another therapeutic magic trick.

Gaza doesn’t lack entrepreneurs, people with ingenuity and talent and ideas who want to support themselves and their families and not be dependent on humiliating donations. But a rapid increase in the availability of work can be achieved only by restoring freedom of movement to Gaza residents – above all to Israel and the West Bank, and through it to other countries in the region, rather than solely to impoverished Egypt and distant Cairo. This would also revive the Palestinian economy as a whole.

>> Cabinet holds three-hour meeting on Gaza economy, but makes no new decisions

A World Bank report from March said, “The current market in Gaza is not able to offer jobs and incomes, leaving a large population in despair, particularly the youth. Gaza’s exports are a fraction of their pre-blockade level and the manufacturing sector has shrunk by as much as 60 percent over the last twenty years. The economy cannot survive without being connected to the outside world. Minor changes to the restrictive system currently in place will not be sufficient. Proposed projects to increase the supply of water and electricity are extremely welcome, but unless there is an opportunity to boost incomes through expanding trade, the sustainability of these investments will be in doubt.”

More than a year ago, an Israeli-Palestinian research group called the Aix Group published a clear plan for rescuing Gaza’s economy without waiting for a political agreement between the parties. It entailed allowing the regular movement of people and convoys of trucks between Gaza and the West Bank, reopening Gaza’s airport, increasing the supply of water and electricity, cutting the list of goods defined as “dual-use” (meaning they can be used for both civilian and military purposes), rehabilitating the fishing marina and the gradual construction of a port.

All this should occur alongside the restoration of Palestinian economic activity in Area C, the portion of the West Bank under full Israeli control, and especially in the Jordan Valley, it added.

>> There is no ‘solution for Gaza’ | Opinion

There are plenty of ideas; the obstacle to their implementation is not technical but political. Restoring freedom of movement to the residents of the Gaza Strip contradicts Israel’s consistent policy of almost three decades – to sever the Gaza Strip from the West Bank in order to turn it into a separate Palestinian political entity from that in the West Bank enclaves.

This has also been one of Hamas’ goals since the movement won the 2006 elections. Realizing that it would not be able to control the West Bank enclaves in the foreseeable future, and because the UN and the Quartet countries boycotted it, Hamas sought to establish itself as a political and military force in the Gaza Strip, thus strengthening its position in the Arab and Muslim world and the Palestinian Diaspora, and to build itself as an alternative to the PLO or as a central force within it. For this it would be enough for the border with Egypt to be open, even if the crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel and through them to the West Bank are not opened.

On Tuesday, a delegation of senior Hamas government officials visited Egypt to discuss a series of joint economic projects, such as increasing trade and establishing a free-trade zone between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. This was reported by news sites in the Strip. Increasing trade has already been discussed by Hamas and Egypt in the past, and implementation has begun – partially and irregularly – over the past year.

To establish its strength and sustainability, the Hamas government aspires to be free from dependence on imports from Israel or through the Palestinian Authority; instead of customs revenues and taxes on goods being shared between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it wants the money to come directly to it. Now this will happen in full coordination with the Americans and Egypt, and with Israeli consent.

As Alex Fishman wrote Tuesday in Yedioth Ahronoth, “The Egyptians and the Americans agreed on increasing the volume of goods from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, bypassing the Palestinian Authority.” In other words, what the Hamas government did between 2007 and 2012 through the sophisticated trade tunnels that it dug in the Rafah area and the establishment of a new private sector that was dependent on it (instead of the private sector that was connected to the Palestinian Authority and that was left impoverished), it will do under the Egyptian-American umbrella with Israeli permission.

Fishman wrote, “The Egyptians intend to double the number of Egyptian army cement factories in Sinai to increase the supply of cement to the Gaza Strip.” Thus, not only will the cement needed for rehabilitating and rebuilding the Gaza Strip become cheaper, but the contractors and traders in Gaza can bypass the cumbersome cement import mechanism that Israel set up to monitor and prevent the use of the cement for military purposes to the extent possible. It is clear that the Americans would not be discussing increasing the quantities of cement with the Egyptians without Israel’s knowledge and consent.

Fishman writes that the Shin Bet security service is opposed to the proposal to allow some 6,000 laborers to work in the Gaza perimeter communities, for security reasons. It believes this would provide a way for Hamas to collect intelligence information and smuggle money. But economists and political observers in Gaza think the exact opposite; allowing tens of thousands of Gazans to work in Israel and the West Bank, while strengthening ties with the West Bank, would weaken Hamas’ appeal, reduce the private sector’s dependence on the organization and provide young people with other criteria for understanding the world, while most importantly offering them hope and a reason to continue living in the Strip and making a respectable living.

There is a contradiction between removing the Israeli fear of uncontrolled entry of cement (and other raw materials) into the Gaza Strip, and the apparent fear of having several thousand laborers enter Israel. This contradiction shows that Israel intends to continue to sever Gaza residents from the population of the West Bank from a political, civil, cultural and economic perspective, and from Israel – from an economic perspective. This continuing disconnect under the outline of U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means ensuring Hamas’ rule. This is the main message behind the leaks about the Israeli easing of conditions.