Last week's announcement by Secretary Kerry opened a chink of light that we might finally see progress towards resolving this conflict. Getting even this far was an achievement in itself, and the UK has paid tribute to Kerry's determination as well as to the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. The real work now starts, and will require huge creativity and courage if it is to go anywhere.
Britain has already said we will do everything we can to help the parties find a route to peace.
This week, I want to address one aspect of the conflict that is sometimes left to one side. A few days ago I made one of my regular trips into Gaza. Every time I go, my head spins with the contrast between my life in Tel Aviv, and this alternate reality just the other side of the Erez crossing. Just meters separate a prosperous, liberal democracy from a poor, repressed territory of 1.7 million souls suffering under Hamas control.
My trips – made with my friend the British consul-general to Jerusalem – do not include meetings with Hamas. Britain does not talk to Hamas, and will not until they meet clear conditions, in particular the renunciation of violence. I was left in no doubt about Hamas’ lack of readiness to be a partner for peace after attending the funeral two years ago of Daniel Viflic, a 16 year old British-Israeli dual national killed when the school bus he was on was hit intentionally by a Hamas RPG.
My trips do include meetings with some of Gaza’s business leaders. These are reasonable people, who bear Israel no ill will, speak Hebrew fluently, and simply want to make a living. Over time I have seen how the restrictions currently imposed by Israel are strangling them, and enriching Hamas and its allies. It is a tragic case of a policy achieving precisely the opposite of what is intended.
The restrictions were relaxed somewhat after the flotilla incident, but two restrictions still make a huge difference. One is the ban on the import of private construction materials. The reason for this ban is a security concern, namely that Hamas could use these materials to make bunkers for themselves. But the truth is that Hamas has got all the building materials it could possibly want through the tunnels. And its supporters also get what they want through the tunnels, giving Hamas a huge income taxing materials as they go through.
The people that the restrictions hurt are the moderate businessmen, who are not allied to Hamas, do not ship materials in though the tunnels, and cannot compete with those who do. They hurt ordinary Gazan workers, who might otherwise have jobs in the building trade. Unemployment in Gaza runs at 40% - higher, among the young. And they hurt ordinary Gazan families, many of whom need the homes that the legitimate private sector would build.
The other restriction that strangles legitimate trade is the near-complete ban on exports. There have been limited shipments of strawberries, flowers and clothes to Europe. We have welcomed these when they happened. But to a very large extent the people of Gaza still cannot sell their goods to the world. They certainly cannot sell their goods to Israel or the West Bank, which were their traditional markets. If Gaza can export fruit and textiles to Europe – with thorough Israeli security checks – why not to the West Bank?
This near-ban on exports has already killed much of Gaza’s legitimate economy. I have met a man who manufactured security doors, who has had to lay off most of his workers. I met a furniture manufacturer who could create dozens of jobs if he could sell again into the West Bank, but for now sees his factory lying dormant.
Of course Israel’s security needs have to be met. I would not advocate Israel doing anything that increased the threat that Gaza already poses to Israel’s security. We should not be naïve about Hamas, or about the thousands of rockets that have been fired from Gaza since the disengagement.
But by keeping Gaza’s economy deflated, by weakening Gaza’s traditional business leaders, and by forcing all trade to go through Hamas-controlled tunnels, we are not doing anything to strengthen Israel’s security. Rather, we are simply enriching Hamas and its allies.
How much better to allow legitimate businesses to create jobs, build houses, and offer an alternative, hopeful vision to the young people of Gaza rather than the hate-filled, destructive ideology of Hamas?
Matthew Gould is the British ambassador to Israel