Gaza flotilla renews debate on Israel's blockade
A flotilla of ships set to leave Greece for Gaza this week is reigniting arguments about the wisdom of Israel's trade restrictions to the Palestinian territory.
A year ago, deadly clashes between Israeli soldiers and pro-Palestinian activists on a Gaza-bound flotilla of aid forced Israel to relax its blockade on the Gaza Strip and lift a ban on consumer goods such as chocolate – giving the local economy a boost for the first time in years.Skip to next paragraph
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But as a second flotilla gathers in the Mediterranean to test Israel’s maritime closure of Gaza, land restrictions on Gaza trade are also still a bone of contention. The scaled-back blockade is still an economic drag, with tight restrictions on exports and imported building materials.
While Gazans no longer have to buy bottles of cola caked with mud from the smuggling tunnels beneath the Egyptian border, the underground economy has shifted to cement, steel, and automobile parts. And despite Egypt’s recent announcement that it would open up its pedestrian crossing at Rafah, the result has been marginal improvement.
IN PHOTOS The Gaza flotilla
"Nowadays you go to the supermarket, and you get everything," says Mkhaimer Abusada, a professor of political science at Al Azhar Univeristy in Gaza City, who says he became used to the layer of dirt covering bottles of Coca-Cola. "Even though the situation is much better than a year ago, still the Palestinians have a general feeling that they are under siege."
IMF: Gaza economy still down 20 percent
In an April report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) described the economy of Gaza as trying to "catch up" to normal levels. It noted a 15 percent jump in output in 2010, though that remains 20 percent below what it was six years ago.
Though Gaza manufacturers hired 1,200 new workers last year, the total number of employees is less than half of those who had jobs when the militant group Hamas took control of the coastal strip in 2007, according to the Palestinian statistics bureau. Unemployment has dipped but remains at 37 percent.
Since Israel first began imposing restrictions on Palestinian movement in and out of Gaza in the 1990s, it justified such restrictions as necessary for its security. But after the 2006 abduction of Sgt. Gilad Shalit on the Gaza border, and Hamas’s ascension to power four years ago, the border restrictions were described as political leverage to pressure Hamas.
Now, Israeli officials have reverted to portraying limits on movement as security precautions.
Israel’s army says that the number of shipping containers at the border more than doubled in May from April, and that there are some 70 development projects by international groups that are either in progress or have been completed.
So far, only flowers and produce destined for Europe have been authorized. Exports to nearby markets in Israel and the West Bank are still banned. Officials insist, however, that the policy is to loosen restrictions on exports.
"If you get a container from Gaza to Israel, how do you know it isn’t going to explode?" says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "There are logistic and security issues, but the policy is to widen."
Small businesses ready to export from Gaza
Indeed, Mohammed al-Tilbani, the owner of an ice cream and biscuit factory in Gaza, says that he has been approached recently by US diplomats to see if he is ready to resume ice cream exports to the West Bank. Mr. Tilbani says he already has refrigerator storage in the West Bank from the days that 60 percent of his sales came from selling to Palestinians there.