In the past five years it was impossible to separate the Gaza siege policy from Gilad Shalit’s captivity. During these years, Israeli decision-makers, who made no progress in negotiations with Hamas, invested their efforts in formulating and implementing a policy that would express the public’s fury and frustration.
Disrupting civilian life in the Gaza Strip was a move that officials characterized as “economic warfare,” while the Red Cross referred to it as “collective punishment.” Now that the painful affair of Shalit’s abduction is over, the time has come to also end the painful, embarrassing affair of the Gaza Strip blockade.
In the absence of a military option or political willingness to undertake a prisoner swap, the Olmert government promised and delivered: As long as Gilad Shalit is in captivity, Gaza residents would also be captives. Indeed, the blockade had an effect: Plants were closed down, unemployment rose, and the access to universities, jobs and professional as well as social development was curbed.
When the blockade’s management was handed over to the Netanyahu government, it discovered two facts: Firstly, that the Israeli public does not make do with expressing fury, but rather, insists on returning Shalit back home – even in exchange for hundreds of prisoners. Secondly, the siege policy, which was presented as a move that would weaken Hamas’ rule, in fact weakened the State of Israel.
Top security officials produced mathematical equations that allowed Gazans to consume cinnamon, but banned snacks and coriander, thereby harming Israel’s global image. The transfer of goods that can be used in industry was banned, thereby boosting the dependency on Hamas jobs and international as well as Islamic charity organizations. The transfer of fuel and construction materials was also limited, turning the private sector into a client of Hamas, which brings these goods in through the tunnels and exacts taxes.
In addition, movement between Gaza and the West Bank was banned, including for young students, businesswomen and professionals.
Time to reconsider Gaza policy
The Turkish flotilla events in May 2010 provided the government with an incentive to ease a policy that was no longer useful; Israel lifted the ban on raw materials and consumer goods – an important yet partial step. The bans on exportation, construction materials and the movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank remained intact.
With Shalit’s release, one of the main reasons for the siege policy was removed from the equation, and the Israeli government must reconsider it. The government must ask itself: Do we gain from banning business women who own Gaza hair saloons from traveling for advanced training in a West Bank conference? Why has no export truck left Gaza since May? Is the fact that some 83% of Gaza plants are paralyzed or working in low capacity good for Israel?
Indeed, the Israeli government has some more unsettled scores with the Hamas rule, especially as result of the attacks on southern Israel. However, events of the past week prove that the public does not want its elected officials to express national anger, but rather, leadership and wise conduct in a challenging security and diplomatic theater where not everything is under our control.
We can and should continue the positive trend of changing our policy towards the Gaza Strip. We can and should lift the ban on exporting Gaza goods, including to Israel and the West Bank, and on the entry of construction materials and the movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank. All of it should be subjected to strict security screening.
The time has come to free not only Gilad Shalit, but also Israel’s citizens and Gaza’s residents from the burden of this flawed policy, which lost the few people who ever believed in its effectiveness a long time ago.
Sari Bashi is the director of Gisha, the legal center for freedom of movement
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