This week I visited one of the Gaza periphery communities, Kibbutz Nahal Oz. It felt anything but normal. High concrete blast walls surrounded the kindergarten. Many families were yet to return, too fearful and uncertain about the future. To the residents, the current calm seemed tentative and fragile.
The fifty day conflict with Gaza took a heavy toll on both sides. But the current ceasefire remains all too fragile. The status quo needs to change, or the prospect of rocket fire resuming towards Israel is real.
Following the ceasefire, Israel expanded Gaza’s fishing zone to six nautical miles. 400 truckloads of goods now cross the border at Kerem Shalom each day. From sacks of flour to cartons of nappies, from Australian cattle and cooking gas to roofing and watermelon seeds – I saw it all when I visited this week.
These are positive steps, but more is now needed.
That is why the Israel-PA-UN agreement announced earlier this week to facilitate the reconstruction and recovery of Gaza is so important, and why countries such as Australia are so keen to support it.
Israel has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed in any new cross-border mechanism. No-one in the international community will tolerate seeing sacks of cement being used to rebuild the terror attack tunnels.
But provided we can protect Israel’s security concerns, improving economic conditions for ordinary Gazans is a goal Israel and the international community can share.
Gaza’s reconstruction needs are real and significant. As importantly, economic opportunities for Gazans to earn a living on their own must improve.
When I visited Gaza several months ago, I was shocked by the stranglehold that Hamas exercised over the economy.
If people had a job, they worked for Hamas or were employed by an aid agency. Much of the population subsisted on welfare and handouts. The economy was closed and stagnant. It was a miserable snapshot of a place once renowned for its commercial class.
A new cross-border mechanism with robust monitoring and verification could change this equation.
If goods can move more freely in and out of Gaza, if exports can resume, if a private sector can re-emerge, then the politics of Gaza can be transformed.
Gazan strawberry and carnation growers could sell their goods into the West Bank, where incomes are three times as high. West Bank Palestinians could become a big source of tourists for Gaza’s beaches.
This will not happen overnight, but if we can break Hamas’ stranglehold on the Gazan economy, their political dominance will soon be challenged.
This is an outcome that would benefit both the security of Israel and the people of Gaza.