Moran Banai is the policy director for Middle East Progress. A number of years ago, before going to Columbia University for graduate study, she worked on the staff of Meretz USA. She recently posted the following piece, “Real Security for Israel,” at the Democracy Arsenal Website:
The Israeli raid of the ship the Mavi Marmara, which ended with the deaths of nine protestors, is a potent symbol of why Israel’s current policy toward the Gaza Strip is unsustainable. Right now Iranian ships are on their way to attempt to break the blockade, forcing what could be an ugly confrontation on the high seas between the two adversaries. Whether it will be governments or activists who try to force the situation, the Israeli government will have to decide over and over whether to stop the ships, which could result in similarly violent situations, or let them through, which would effectively break the naval blockade and undermine Israel’s ability to ensure that no weapons are brought into Gaza by sea.
What is now becoming more clear is that Israel’s Gaza policy also does not achieve its stated purposes. Isolating the people of Gaza has not made them less amenable to Hamas. Nor has it weakened Hamas. Nor will it make Israelis secure in the long term. As many people who care about Israel’s security, including President Obama, have begun to argue, the lesson learned from the Mavi Marmara incident is that Israel must rethink its strategy; it must develop a policy that lifts the closure on Gaza without harming Israeli security or accruing too much to the benefit of Hamas. Israel has begun to ameliorate the situation over the last few months in cooperation with the United States and others and it has sped that up further in the past few weeks. Now is the time for the world to build on this progress and work with Israel to change its policy.
Closing off the Gaza Strip allowed Hamas to entrench its power and authority in many ways while weakening the Strip’s middle class. Hamas now boasts a separate governing mechanism to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, taking charge of everything from the meting out of justice to the provision of health care. While the Palestinian Authority continues to pay and employ its own bureaucrats in Gaza not to work, this entrenchment on all levels of the bureaucracy strengthens Hamas’ control of the Strip.
At the same time, the border closure and naval blockade strangles the legitimate economy of the Strip. Businesses around the tunnels on the Egypt-Gaza border now provide most of the goods to the Gazan economy, though they have been harmed by Egypt’s monitoring of the border and construction of an underground wall. Still, this dynamic is rapidly transferring power from the established middle class, a potential moderate stronghold, to a new breed of wealthy individuals who are invested in the tunnels and beholden to Hamas, which regulates the tunnel economy.
Israel ensures there is no starvation in the Strip by allowing for the import of humanitarian assistance, but in undermining the legitimate economy and closing off the access of the people of Gaza to the outside world, it isolates the people of Gaza along with Hamas. The dissemination of information in the Strip is controlled by Hamas. Gazans’ ability to travel is extremely curtailed. Some are occasionally allowed to leave, including a limited amount of students going on exchange programs and businessmen traveling to the West Bank on specific occasions. But overall, the ability of the people of Gaza to interact with the outside world is severely limited.
This policy is in part intended to demonstrate to the people of Gaza that they can choose life like this under Hamas or a better future like the situation in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority. What appears to be happening instead is that the people of Gaza are angry at Israel, they are angry at the United States, and they are angry at the Palestinian Authority. They are also angry at Hamas, but they do not hold it solely responsible for their situation, as the Israeli policy intends.
To be sure, Israel has legitimate reasons to be concerned about Hamas’ control over the Gaza Strip. Hamas continues to defy the three requirements for political engagement asked of it by the Quartet for Middle East Peace (The United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations). Hamas does not recognize Israel, does not recognize previous agreements, and has not renounced violence. It took over the Strip in a violent coup in 2007. It also continues to smuggle increasingly effective arms into the Gaza Strip, posing a real threat to people in wider swaths of Israel as the precision and power of the arms increases. And it continues to hold on to Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured in 2006. …
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