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We need to talk about the Gaza Strip

Israel may pay a terrible price for ignoring the dire humanitarian crisis in the Strip
Palestinian children at home reading books by candle light due to electricity shortages in Gaza City, June 13, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
Palestinian children at home reading books by candle light due to electricity shortages in Gaza City, June 13, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

The Gaza Strip is a pressure cooker bound to explode in our faces once again, if we do not act now to change the situation.

Fifty percent of Gazans are under 15. It is hard to imagine what it must be like for a parent in Gaza trying to raise children with four hours of electricity a day: without a working fridge, oven, or air conditioning; or for that matter in a place where 96% of water is polluted.

It is also hard to imagine raising kids to be hopeful about their future in a place with 40% unemployment (60% youth unemployment), and where it is almost impossible to leave. Israel generally allows only medical cases, traders, internationals and NGO workers through the border, and Egypt less than that. Israel blockades the coast, and controls the airspace.

A resident told Times of Israel correspondent Avi Issacharoff recently: “I have no food for my children … Believe me; you know that I don’t make things up. I have nothing to give them to eat. The situation here is so bad, I have no work, the children [the older ones] have no work. And I see nothing on the horizon. As far as I’m concerned, it would be better if a war started already. Maybe then people will notice Gaza and pay attention to us. We have no life here anymore. This is hell.”

And it is getting worse. Gaza’s infrastructure is deteriorating whilst its population reached two million this year and is set to reach 3.2 million by 2030. A baby is born in the Gaza Strip every nine minutes. That’s 60,000 births each year. Not for nothing is Gaza described as a pressure cooker.

Yet there is very little discussion about Gaza in Israel. The only time we seem to pay attention, is when they fire rockets at us.

As Israelis, it is easy for us to tell ourselves it is not our problem. After all, we left the Gaza Strip, every inch. Gaza is run by Hamas and Hamas wants to kill us. They take cement intended for houses and build tunnels. And wasn’t it the Palestinian Authority that stopped sending money and told us cut down the electricity? And doesn’t Egypt shut its border to its fellow Arabs?

The answer to all these may be yes, but nonetheless, the suffering in Gaza is our problem. First, Gaza is overwhelmingly dependent on Israel for water, electricity and access. This is a consequence of occupying the Gaza Strip for 40 years. Even in situations of armed conflict Israel has a responsibility to prevent harm to civilians. That is not only a moral judgement. It is a legal judgement of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Second, the pressure cooker has exploded in our faces every two to three years since 2009. The 2014 conflict saw more than 3,000 rockets fired at Israel, 73 Israelis killed, and a cost to our economy of an estimated 3.5 billion shekels. Around 2,200 Palestinians were killed, more than 500 under the age of 18, and 180 of them under the age of six.

It could well have been avoided had Israel taken steps to ease the pressure. “It is absolutely clear that with severe economic distress, there is the potential for escalation. There is the potential to get to a situation where you don’t have anything more to lose.” That is what Maj. Gen. (res.) Sami Turgeman, in charge of Southern Command in 2014, told Dana Weiss in a recent report for Channel 2. The State Comptroller explicitly criticised the government for failing to consider political alternatives before the war.

Third, when Gaza’s electricity shuts down, their untreated sewage flows into our groundwater, and shuts down our desalination plants, and our beaches. Thanks to the ingenuity of Israeli engineers we can shoot Hamas’s rockets out of the sky, but there is no barrier to nature.

So the fact is, when Gazans suffer, we end up with shit on our plate, whether we like it or not.

Given all that, one would think that this would be an overwhelming priority of the government. Yet the government’s approach is characterised by passivity, even whilst the IDF warns that the current situation could lead to an explosion.

The security cabinet even went along with a proposal of PA President Mahmoud Abbas (when is the last time that happened?!) to increase the pressure on the Gaza Strip by cutting back its electricity even further.

For sure, Gaza presents a sharp policy dilemma. The humanitarian logic is to supply Gaza’s civilians with whatever they need. The political logic is to make life as hard as possible for Hamas.

But in reality, the scarcity of electricity has not stopped Hamas building rockets and tunnels to attack us with. Nor have the periodic conflicts stopped Hamas getting stronger. When Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, Hamas’ rockets could only reach a few kilometers. In 2014 they shut down Ben Gurion airport. The guys with the guns can get what they need. It is the kids that are going without.

But Israel has alternatives, as Brig. Gen (ret.) Michael Herzog set out in a recent interview with BICOM: leading an international effort to fix the infrastructure; seeking alternative access arrangements through Egypt or an offshore port; and using the leverage these proposals provide to negotiate a long term ceasefire. These steps could stop the cycle of war every 2-3 years.

As Turgeman said in a recent interview: now, during a period of quiet, is the time to act to improve the situation. Otherwise we send the message that we only understand force.

So why don’t our leaders act? Is it because of the mad race to the bottom which current coalition members are engaged in; each trying to sound tougher and less compromising that the next?

Certainly, the right as a whole has paid no political price for the situation. In fact, each escalation has become another opportunity for hard line rhetoric and the ‘no-solution’ mantra, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each of Netanyahu’s last three election victories have followed within months of a major conflict in the Gaza Strip.

To help change this equation we need a change in the Israeli public discourse. If we don’t want to find ourselves back in the bomb shelters, we need to demand our leaders take action to prevent another Gaza War. In short, we need to talk about the Gaza Strip, and not just when they are firing rockets at us.

About the Author
Dr. Toby Greene is Senior Research Associate at Israeli and Middle East think tank BICOM and an Israel Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University.
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