The tragic Gaza flotilla incident on May 31 focused attention on the situation in Hamas-ruled Gaza. Unfortunately, much that has been said about the history and current reality of that unhappy territory is poorly informed.
Crowded, resource-poor Gaza has never been a particularly pleasant place to live. Slated to be part of a Palestinian state under the 1947 UN partition plan, when the Arab states followed up their rejection of the plan with a military attack, Gaza ended up under neglectful Egyptian military rule. When Israel captured it in the 1967 war, the area was dirt poor, with unemployment topping 40%.
From 1968 through 1986, as many Gazans found work in Israel, and investment in health, education and other infrastructure increased greatly, per capita income in Gaza and the West Bank combined rose tenfold, from US$165 to US$1,715, leaping ahead of neighbouring countries like Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Tunisia. All quality-of-life values increased.
The Palestinian resort to violence in the intifada from 1987 saw conditions deteriorate, as Israel protected its citizens from terrorism by closing the borders.
However, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, following the Oslo agreements, led to a massive influx of foreign aid. Unfortunately, much of this was squandered due to corruption and mismanagement.
The signing of the agreements didn’t bring peace, however, as Palestinian terrorism dramatically increased. The terror campaigns were largely the work of Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian rejectionist terror group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood but largely bankrolled by Iran. After 2003, Hamas, unable to penetrate the Gaza border fence to perpetrate terror attacks, increasingly began to fire homemade and imported rockets at nearby Israeli civilian towns.
In 2005, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally pulled all Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza. This should have been an opportunity to improve the lot of Gazans through self-government, aid and investment, but sadly, this did not happen.
In January 2006, Hamas won a plurality of votes in Palestinian legislative elections thanks to Fatah corruption, and Hamas’ claim to have successfully used terrorist “resistance” to drive Israel out of Gaza. Following a year of tense and dysfunctional unity government, in June 2007, Hamas staged a bloody coup in Gaza, killing and brutally driving out many members of Fatah.
Rocket fire into Israel increased dramatically. Over 8,000 rockets were fired between 2004 and 2010, making normal life in many southern Israeli towns all but impossible. Moreover, with help from Iran, the ranges of the rockets kept increasing, placing more Israeli cities under constant threat, leading ultimately to a full-scale war at the end of 2008.
Israel and Egypt both imposed a blockade on Gaza starting with the 2007 coup, controlling by land and sea the entry of military and dual use items – but ensuring adequate supplies for civilian needs. It was designed to reduce Hamas’ ability to arm itself, and to restrict Hamas’ ability to permanently entrench its rule.
This is an accepted legal option in any state of armed conflict – in this case created by the reality that Hamas openly insists that it is at war and seeks Israel’s elimination.
The blockade does adversely affect the standard of living of Gazans (as any state of war usually does to civilians) but this should not have been exaggerated. Repeated reports have made it clear that the shops are well-stocked and no one is starving. Even Hamas officials admit as much.
In excess of one million tons of food, fuel, medical supplies, hygiene products, cooking gas and other basic needs were supplied to Gaza over the past 18 months across the Israeli border. That’s almost a ton per inhabitant.
The Gaza situation should be understood as part of the larger profound struggle taking place in the Middle East pitting Iran and its allies, including Hamas, against most Arab governments, who fear Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions. For this reason, despite their public protests, most Arab governments tacitly support the blockade of Gaza, as does the PA, which is effectively in a state of civil war with Hamas.
Turkey, once friendly to Israel but with a changed ideological direction over recent years, is a new factor in this equation, determined to exploit the current crisis to the hilt. The Islamist AKP Government in Ankara has some ideological affinities with Hamas, but more importantly, Ankara is now seeking a leadership role in the Middle East and picking fights with Israel on behalf of Palestinians is one way to win attention there.
In reality, there can be only one way forward for Gaza, which everyone of good will knows – an Israeli-Palestinian agreement leading to the establishment of two states living in mutual peace and security. With significant economic and state-building progress occurring in the West Bank, and the last four Israeli governments all publicly committed to this goal, the Iranian-backed rejectionism of Hamas in Gaza is perhaps the most critical barrier retarding this outcome today.
There could be few greater blows to peace hopes than an unconditional lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza. Empowered by Iranian funds, expertise and armaments, Hamas would become much better able to take on both Israel and the PA, with its reputation vastly enhanced. Hezbollah in non-blockaded Lebanon, now armed with Scuds and other advanced weaponry, would be the model.
With Israel having now modified the blockade so that all civilian goods without military uses will now be permitted, its core purpose – to keep Hamas from arming – nonetheless remains in place. As the words of Quartet envoy Tony Blair indicate, this means that anyone who now insists on “breaking” Israel’s blockade is not seeking to aid Gaza’s citizens – which they can now do freely – but to arm Hamas. By contrast, I would argue that anyone who really cares about the welfare of Gazans will seek first and foremost to end Hamas’ brutal rule and its total rejection of any genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace.