Thursday, June 30, 2011

"The Blockade on Gaza Began Long Before Hamas Came to Power" -- Mya Guarnieri

Athens, Greece – The second Freedom Flotilla is slated to set sail by the end of the month in an attempt to challenge the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The act will call attention to the closure that the United Nations and human rights organizations have decried as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the collective punishment of civilians.

According to the Israeli government — and most of the mainstream media — the blockade began in 2007, following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. The aim of this “economic warfare” was to weaken Hamas, a group that the Israeli government had once supported. Israel also sought to stop rocket fire and to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in Gaza since 2006.

Four years on, none of these goals have been achieved.

Israel has achieved a minor victory on one front, however. Even critics use 2007 as the start-date of the blockade, unintentionally legitimizing Israel’s cause-and-effect explanation that pegs the closure to political events.

But the blockade did not begin in 2007, following the Hamas takeover of the Strip. Nor did it start in 2006, with Israel’s economic sanctions against Gaza. The hermetic closure of Gaza is the culmination of a process that began twenty years ago.

Punitive closures begin

Sari Bashi is the founder and director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement. She says that the gradual closure of Gaza began in 1991, when Israel canceled the general exit permit that allowed most Palestinians to move freely through Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Non-Jewish residents of Gaza and the West Bank were required to obtain individual permits.

This was during the First Intifada. While the mere mention of the word invokes the image of suicide bombers in the Western imagination, it’s important to bear in mind that the First Intifada was, by and large, a non-violent uprising comprised of civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotts of Israeli goods.

A wave of violence came, however, in 1993. It was then, Bashi explains, that Israel began closing some crossings temporarily, turning away even those who held exit permits. Because a tremendous majority of Palestinians are not and were not suicide bombers, the restrictions on movement constituted collective punishment for the actions of a few — foreshadowing the nature of the blockade to come.

Over the years, there were other suggestions that a hermetic, punitive closure was on the horizon. The beginning of the Second Intifada, in September of 2000, saw Palestinian students “banned from traveling from Gaza to the West Bank,” Bashi says. In general, travel between the Occupied Palestinian Territories came under increasing restrictions, as well.

Exports took a hit in 2003, with the sporadic closures of the Karni crossing. While the 2005 disengagement supposedly signaled the end of the occupation of Gaza, in reality, it brought ever tightening restrictions on the movement of both people and goods. And, in 2006, the few Gazans who were still working in Israel were banned from entering, cutting them off from their jobs at a time when the Strip’s economy was under even more pressure.

Gaza today: the economy has been driven into the ground. The unemployment rate is almost 50 percent and four out of every five Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on humanitarian aid. Hospitals are running out of supplies. The chronically ill cannot always get exit permits, which can lead to access-related deaths. Students are sometimes prevented from reaching their universities. Families have been shattered. Some psychologists say that the intense pressure created by the blockade – which was compounded during Operation Cast Lead – accounts for spikes in domestic violence, divorce and drug abuse.

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