It is easier to enter a maximum-security prison than it is to enter the strip of land – 45 kilometres long and maybe eight wide – that is home to Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians. Surrounded by a forbidding wall, watchtowers, and deadly buffer zones, I entered with a hard-to-obtain visa at the Erez crossing – iron gates, an interrogation by bored young immigration officers and scanners. On the other side is a kilometre-long caged walkway that leads into this part of Palestine, trapped between Israel, Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the general indifference of the international community.
The view walking – in sweltering heat – through that long cage is apocalyptic. Small groups of Palestinians smash up the remains of Gaza’s bombed industrial infrastructure – the concrete blocks that litter the sandy landscape. They pummel the blocks for gravel and the steel bars inside. The result of their labour is hauled away in carts pulled by mangy horses or donkeys. This is much of what passes for industry in Gaza.
The world periodically wakes up to the horrors of life in Gaza, and then goes back to watching the World Cup or planning summer holidays. We were awakened, for example, by the military assault of December 2008 and January 2009, when more than 1,300 Palestinians (including over 300 children) and 13 Israelis died. We noticed the long-running horror story again when the Israeli Defence Forces attacked a Turkish flotilla, carrying relief supplies, in May, with nine civilian fatalities.
You have to be careful with language when discussing Israeli actions. Those who argue that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza should not compare the situation with Ethiopia or Sudan in the middle of a drought or a war. Conditions in Gaza are harsh and the population does suffer. Israel’s government has denied that people are starving and has relaxed its import restriction regime. But the siege was never intended to starve Gazans; as Dov Weissglass, a former aid to Ariel Sharon, famously observed, the aim was “to put the Palestinians on a diet”.
The intention was collective punishment, imposed partly in response to Hamas’s political control of Gaza. Hamas won the 2006 elections in the whole of occupied Palestine and formed a national unity government with Fatah. The US, Israel, and much of the international community then torpedoed that arrangement. It was all very well having elections – until the wrong side won.
With the changes in the import controls on Gaza – there is now a list of what cannot be taken in, rather than of what can – more goods should arrive. But the ability to buy the jams, muesli, balsamic vinegar, and pots of lemon curd that I saw in an up-market Gazan supermarket will not do much for ordinary people, 80% of whom depend on emergency food rations.
Moreover, ordinary Gazans cannot rebuild their homes and schools, because building materials remain proscribed, or are dribbled in only for UN projects. No raw materials, which would allow the revival of Gaza’s commerce and industry, are permitted.
This is a central part of Israel’s policy, in flat defiance of international law and customary norms of civilised behaviour. With chocolate and cardamom now allowed into Gaza, Israel is applying a ‘smarter’ siege, which will keep Palestinians here isolated, poor, and aid-dependent, but not starving.
When I was in Gaza before the Second Intifada, there were many examples of entrepreneurial activity – factories and farms. Most of that has been stamped out. As the assault on Gaza ended in 2009, Israeli military bulldozers flattened factories. The imposition of a border zone has gobbled up 29% of the strip’s agricultural land.
But Israel and Egypt – partners in the siege – turn a blind eye most of the time to tunnels (perhaps as many as a thousand) that snake under the Egyptian border at Rafah and bring in black-market goods, which Hamas then taxes. Decent would-be Palestinian businessmen (the potential backbone of a middle class) are destroyed. Racketeers flourish. Kafka-esque politics produces “Alice in Wonderland” economics.
You see some of the humanitarian problems stemming from the siege most clearly when visiting hospitals, as I did with the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians, of which I am president. Life-saving drugs are in short supply, and equipment often does not work because of power cuts or the absence of spare parts. Seriously ill patients require permission to be treated in West Bank hospitals, and some are reportedly pressed to collaborate with Israel’s security services in return for being allowed out. Doctors and students can leave Gaza only rarely to attend conferences or universities abroad.
I strongly opposed the international call a year ago to boycott Israel’s universities. But the Gaza blockade means that Israel boycotts Palestinian academic life. It is time that Israel took its boot off Gaza’s windpipe.
Some in Israel, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, seem to want to cut off Gaza completely from the West Bank, in contravention of the Oslo accords (and the prospect of a two-state solution!), and push it in the direction of Egypt. But Gaza remains an integral part of Palestine – and a growing part. With its population increasing at 3.5% a year, the number of Gazans will double in about 15 years (the same timeframe in which the World Health Organization estimates that Gaza will run out of water for its population).
What type of world will the children you see in such prodigious numbers in Gaza inherit? Will collective punishment make them moderate, law-abiding helots? History is not on the side of this immorality.
I want to see Israel, a free, democratic society, live up to its original values and be at peace with its neighbours. It will not achieve this through its appalling Gaza policy. The world – starting with the US administration and the European Union – should tell that to Israel. But don’t hold your breath.
Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former European commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. He also an ECFR council member and co-chair of the International Crisis Group’s Board of Trustees.
This piece was originally published by Project Syndicate.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.