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Analysis: When did the blockade begin?
Published Thursday 28/07/2011 (updated) 29/07/2011 09:44
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ATHENS, Greece (Ma'an) -- The flotilla was intended to challenge the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, a closure that has been decried as a violation of international law. While Israel prevented the boats from reaching the Gaza Strip, the initiative was successful in bring media attention to the closure.

But Israel remains victorious on one crucial front. A tremendous majority of those talking about the blockade -- from the mainstream media to critics and activists -- use 2007 as the start-date, unintentionally lending legitimacy to Israel’s cause and effect explanation, an argument that pegs the closure to political events.

According to the Israeli government, the blockade was a response to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. The stated goals of the closure are to weaken Hamas, to stop rocket fire and to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in Gaza since 2006.

But the blockade -- which the Israeli government has openly called “economic warfare” -- did not begin in 2007. 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 20 years ago.

It is important to note, first, the groundwork that made this process so devastating.

In her definitive piece on the economic de-development of the Gaza Strip, published in 1987, Dr Sara Roy uses data from the years of 1967 to 1985 to illustrate how the Israelis turned the Gaza Strip into a captive market and made Palestinian residents a labor pool dependent on Israel.

This was achieved, in part, by limiting Gaza’s exports and commercial production. These early restrictions (or economic warfare to use the Israeli term) predate Hamas.

When freedom of movement was limited during the First Intifada, Gaza was already pinched.

Sari Bashi is the founder and director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement. In an interview, Bashi remarked 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. It was then that 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 began as a non-violent uprising comprised of civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotts of Israeli goods.

So, that the general exit permit was canceled during this time suggests that this early hit on Palestinian freedom of movement was not rooted in security concerns. It seems, rather, a retributive act, intended to punish Palestinians for daring to resist the Israeli occupation.

Sporadic closures of the Gaza Strip started in 1993, Bashi continues, following a wave of suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians. Because a tremendous majority of Palestinians are not and were not suicide bombers, however, the restrictions on movement again 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. “Movement [was] gradually restricted,” Bashi says, adding that in 1995, the Israelis erected a fence around the Gaza Strip.

At the beginning of the Second Intifada, in September of 2000, Palestinian students were subject to a blanket ban, forbidding travel from Gaza to the West Bank. At this time, the Israelis also closed the “safe passage” -- an armored convoy that facilitated Palestinian movement between the occupied territories.

As the Second Intifada wore on, so did restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom. In March of 2005, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and HaMoked penned a report titled, “One Big Prison: Freedom of Movement to and from the Gaza Strip on the Eve of the Disengagement Plan.”

That there was the need to write such a report -- and that the NGO’s findings elicited such an alarming title -- suggests that the blockade was well under way at this time, more than two years before the Israeli government would have you believe it began.

B’Tselem’s and HaMoked’s March 2005 report stated that only a small number of Gazans were being allowed into Israel to work. Tens of thousands had lost their jobs due to the restrictions on movement.

The 2005 disengagement supposedly signaled the end of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. But, in reality, it brought more Israeli limitations on the movement of both people and goods. While the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access -- brokered by the US and signed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority -- should have eased those restrictions, it didn’t.

The number of day laborers exiting Gaza via the Erez crossing offers a dramatic example. In January of 2000, before the Second Intifada began, an average of 17,635 day laborers passed through Erez every day. In January of 2005, that number had dropped to 49.

Throughout the years there were upticks and downturns in the amount of workers exiting the strip. And in 2005, too, there was a brief rebound. But in 2006, the small number of Gazans who were still working in Israel were banned from entering, cutting them off from their jobs at a time when the coastal strip’s economy was thin to the point of breaking.

As a result of this recent history, the situation in Gaza today is stark.

The economy has been driven into the ground: some estimates put the unemployment rate at almost 50 percent; 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 abroad; families have been shattered.

While the flotilla might have successfully brought the blockade into the mainstream consciousness, it missed an opportunity to really push the envelope by re-framing the conversation altogether.

The author is an Israeli-American journalist based in Tel Aviv. She reported on the 2011 Gaza flotilla for Ma'an.
1 ) southparkbear / usa
28/07/2011 14:02
I am thinking that in my next visit to eetz hakodesh to try to cut costs arriving via a flotilla

2 ) The When And / The How
28/07/2011 14:19
To The Author,

With All Due Respect, No One A Historian Cares About
"When the blockade began".

We Just About About When And How It Will End,
Which Seems To Be:

- The "When" Answer is After A Peace Treaty Is Signed, And

- The "How" Answer is Only By Negotiations And Compromise !!!!

3 ) Gil / Brazil
28/07/2011 14:32
Amira Hass sure got some people asking questions... What I am anxious to see is a report on the import and export of goods throughout these years. While Amira characterized personal freedom of movement as the main burden on the Palestinians I would imagine the economic difficulties resulting from the closure are equally daunting. Thank you Mya for the article.

4 ) ABE / USA
28/07/2011 19:54
While the author says the 1st Intifada began nonviolently it quickly degenerated into suicide bombings. Yes what the ISRAELI"S are doing is collective punishment. But it is very hard from my pov to feel any empathy for the Gaza palestinians who voted in the Hamas government which is sworn to ISRAELS destruction. A country would be irresponsible to it's people if it allowed the free movement of people who are it's sworn enemy! SORRY

5 ) soutyhparkbear / usa
31/07/2011 17:51
exactly 4 hours after taking imodium

6 ) Laurie A. / USA
24/08/2011 20:10
Maybe you need to read the platform of the Likud party which states unequivocably that there will be no Palestinian state west of the Jordan River before you castigate the whole Gazan population for having the temerity for voting for the Hamas Party. Do you vote Likud because of that statement in their platform, or for other reasons? Likewise, the people of Gaza, as I understand it, were voting less for Hamas than against Fatah, whom they saw as corrupt and not considering their needs.

7 ) johnny benson / usa
25/08/2011 02:13
the blocade will end when the arabs stop trying to kill israelis.....which will be never

8 ) Laurie A / USA
25/08/2011 17:36
The numbers speak for themselves. The disproportionate number of Palestinian deaths, both in the West Bank and Gaza, speak for themselves, if you are listening. Maybe the Israelis should not respond to every situation with the military. As the saying goes, If the only weapon you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

9 ) Mel / USA
28/08/2011 16:54
Well said Laurie! Lest we forget? Euro-Zionism was the first to laud the destruction of Palestine & non-Zionists,with its original plan to take all Palestine,E/B Jordan,S/Lebanon(Litani River/Golan)NW Iraq and Sinai,for Eretz,Jewish-only Israel?In 1948,soon after Arabs were expelled into Gaza,it was a labor concentration camp for Israel,but finally sealed off when Israeli settlers were pulled,to secure W/B instead.Israel wants to expel Gazans to Egypt & W/B'ers to E/B.IDF attack,Gaza retaliates
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