After a wave of international flotillas laden with humanitarian supplies for Gaza were headed off by Israeli forces, with one standoff resulting in nine deaths, a new idea was born: a reverse flotilla that would carry symbolic Gazan exports like embroidery, carpets, and dates to foreign customers.
Gazans need “trade not aid,” says Mahfouz Kabariti, part of the "Gaza's Ark" international steering committee, as he polishes his glasses at an open-air restaurant in Gaza City. The vast Mediterranean stretches into the distance behind him, a seemingly open portal to the world. (Editor's note: The original version misattributed the origin of the Gaza Ark idea.)
But since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has enforced a strict naval blockade off Gaza’s coast, citing security concerns such as ships carrying Iranian-supplied weapons to Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by Israel, the US, and Europe. The blockade has put the kibosh on exporting anything from Gaza by sea, and only very limited exports are allowed by land through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, stymieing Gaza’s manufacturing potential.
“If Israel is telling the truth that they have not occupied since 2005, they will allow the ship out,” says Kabariti, head of the Palestine Association for Fishing and Marine Sports. He plans to have “Gaza’s Ark” ready by the end of summer. “If not, they are a liar; this is collective punishment and it’s against international law.”
Balancing security and dignity
His challenge gets to the heart of the debate over Israeli policy toward Gaza: whether it is obliged to maintain such strict control over the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza for security reasons, or whether it is blurring the lines between civilian and military matters. Kabariti and others argue that the restrictions on exports not only deprive Gazan entrepreneurs of their livelihoods, but also deprive them of the basic dignity of providing for oneself and one’s family.
While Israel has been gradually easing its restrictions on Gaza over the past three years, a new report by Israeli NGO Gisha says that the recent closures of Israeli crossings for goods and people in response to Gaza rocket fire appears to mark a meaningful step back.
“Imposing access restrictions which are not directly necessary for security, do not distinguish between civilians and combatants and disproportionately disrupt civilian life, constitutes a breach of Israel’s obligations toward Gaza’s residents under international law,” says the report.
But Col. Grisha Yakubovich, head of civilian coordination for Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), says there has been no change in policy toward Gaza since 2010. “From time to time we are having this situational assessment and decisions are being taken, and in some periods of time, we need to take those measures that will help and create the only thing that is needed – security,” he said at a media briefing this week, in response to a question about the Gisha report.
Exports as well as imports must be regulated for security reasons, he added, because they pass through Israel en route to foreign destinations.
Trade ups and downs
After the May 2010 Mavi Mamara incident, in which Israeli naval commandos killed 9 Turkish activists in a standoff aboard the flagship of a Gaza-bound flotilla, Israel announced a new “civilian policy” toward Gaza. The policy marked a switch from banning all items except those on an approved list to approving all items except those on a banned list.
Since 2010, trade between Israel and Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing has increased nearly 75 percent, from .9 million tons to 1.56 million tons in 2012. This positive trend was boosted after the November 2012 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended an eight-day conflict in which Gaza militants attacked cities as far away as Tel Aviv and Israel responded with punishing air strikes.
However, in recent months, trade has dropped off as Israel repeatedly closed its two crossings in response to Gaza violations of the cease-fire. According to a report last week by Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates lifting Israeli restrictions on the Gaza Strip, imports dropped by 17 percent while the number of individuals who traveled to Israel dropped by 44 percent.
In addition, the number of trucks carrying goods from Gaza into Israel over the past three months dropped by 37.5 percent over the same period last year, and some products destined for export – such as 2.5 tons of mint – were lost due to delays at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
While some exports do leave Gaza, such as a spice export several months ago, a furniture shipment this month, and seasonal agricultural exports supported by the Netherlands, Gaza merchants are with few exceptions banned from exporting to Israel and the West Bank, which once accounted for an estimated 85 percent of Gaza exports.
That helps explain why only 134 truckloads of exports left Gaza in 2012, down from 4,769 in 2007 – a 97 percent drop – according to a fact sheet by the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs for occupied Palestinian territory.
Thanks in part to the export restrictions, which have led to the closures of many factories, some 80 percent of Gazans today receive aid, according to the United Nations. The inability to earn one’s own way in the world can lead to demoralization and potential radicalization, particularly among Gaza’s young people, who face unemployment rates as high as 60 percent, according to Israeli statistics.
“Once sons feel that their father is not able to secure food … this will have a very bad impression on them of their father… and might send youth to very bad directions; they might join some fundamentalist group,” says Kabariti, who recently started a sailing club to give Gazan youths a positive outlet. “But if he can earn a living, this will enable him to feel proud, to feel dignity and happiness.”
Some hope an expected visit from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later this month will help pressure Israel to ease its restrictions further.
“The visit of the Turkish prime minister is a message that Turkey is on the playground,” said Alaa al-Batta of Gaza’s Committee to Break the Siege, which is run out of the foreign ministry, in an April interview. “Our aim of his visit is at least to minimize the siege.”