Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Gaza export ban means easing of blockade is futile

Israel announced on 17 June that it would ‘liberalize’ the siege on Gaza and allow more items through. Having previously had a list of a few permitted items, Israel is now using a list of items that are forbidden because they are considered ‘dual-use’ since they may be adapted for military purposes, according to the Israeli government. Items that do not appear on the lists do not require specific permission to enter, and there are some building materials that may only be allowed entry if used by international organisations on projects authorised by the Palestinian Authority.

Instead of fully lifting the import ban to Gaza, Israel has retained a moderated version of its policy of restricting entry of goods into Gaza, saying that "the limitation on the transfer of goods is a central pillar in the means at the disposal of the State of Israel in the armed conflict between it and Hamas." . The import curbs are a reaction to the election of Hamas in Gaza in 2006 and the continued detention of Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit in the strip. However the statement above clearly demonstrates that the economic blockade on Gaza is a collective punishment aimed at destabilizing Hamas.

Israel came under international pressure to ease the blockade following its raid on the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ in which 9 Turks were killed. A deal was brokered with the help of Middle East Quartet Tony Blair although the subsequent list of prohibited items was not published for another two weeks.

Having previously had a list of a few permitted items, the Israeli government has now compiled a list of prohibited items. These include ‘dual use’ items that Israel claims can be adapted for terrorist activities by Hamas. Bizarrely, these items are almost all construction materials that are vital for rebuilding Gaza after the Israeli war (Operation Cast Lead) that destroyed much of the infrastructure including schools, hospitals and houses.

The international community has applauded Israel for easing its horrific siege on the strip. However, the economic situation remains dire, and will increasingly worsen if Israel refuses to allow exports to leave Gaza. The goods now coming into Gaza are produced by Israel or the West Bank, and so the process only serves to benefit Israel economically and strengthen the rival Fatah movement in the West Bank.

The economic effect of Israel’s newest policy will not become fully clear as international organisations such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory have released reports. However, since the policy of prohibiting exports from Gaza remains unchanged, it is likely that the number of trucks leaving the area will not increase. Since December 2009, only 87 trucks, carrying cut flowers and strawberries have left Gaza , yet industrial and manufactured goods remain stranded. The lack of exports has reduced the number of industrial establishments to a minimum, with 70% closed and the others working at a significantly reduced capacity according to a report by the World Bank and the Palestine Trade centre.

The export of goods from Gaza and the accessibility of construction materials is what will raise living standards. According to Oxfam, the siege must be “fully lifted to enable Palestinians to engage in productive, dignified work. That would help restore hope in the future for Gazans and it would be an important step on the road to peace."
According to the UN, Gaza used to have around 3,800 businesses, trading with the West Bank, Israel and elsewhere. Less than one in six have survived the blockade and the war in 2008-9.

International reactions to Israel’s easing of the blockade indicate that the international community is expecting Israel to take further steps to lift the blockade completely. A British Foreign Office spokesman said, “It is good that Israel is giving serious consideration to resolving these issues, but further work is needed. We need to see the additional steps still to be announced."

In the mean more aid ships, including at least one prepared by Jewish groups in Germany are gearing up to break the siege on Gaza.

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