The siege on the Gaza Strip

Palestinians at the Rafah Crossing on the Egypt-Gaza border hold a demonstration calling for the reopening of the crossing so that Palestinians stranded in Egypt can pass back into the Gaza Strip, 25 July 2007. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

In June 2007, Hamas took over power in the Gaza Strip. Since then, the area has been under siege. Following Hamas’s takeover, Israel changed the movement arrangements at the five Gaza border-crossing points under its control (Erez, Karni, Nahal Oz, Sufa, and Kerem Shalom), and, except for exceptional cases, again did not permit movement of people or goods between Israel and Gaza. Karni Crossing, “the lifeblood of the Gaza Strip,” through which the great majority of goods enters and leaves Gaza, ceased to operate almost completely. As a result, many branches of commerce have been disrupted and the economic crisis in the Gaza Strip has grown.

Rafah Crossing, the only Gaza crossing that is not run by Israel and the only one that is not under its direct control, has not been open since 9 June 2007. Some 6,000 Gazans who were in Egypt at the time it was closed have been unable to return to their homes and are in severe distress. The closing of the crossing also denies Gazans any possibility of going abroad, even for urgent humanitarian purposes, such as medical treatment.

The more the siege continues, the greater the harm to the residents and their ability to meet their basic needs. Therefore, B’Tselem calls on all the parties in charge of managing the crossing points to take immediate action to open the crossings and prevent a humanitarian tragedy.

The economic siege on Gaza and its consequences

The foreign trade of Gaza is conducted almost solely with Israel or via Israeli ports. Israel controls the air space and territorial waters of Gaza, and does not allow Palestinians to build an airport or seaport. Rafah Crossing has a terminal for the crossing of goods. However, even when the terminal is open, goods are not allowed to pass through, this in accordance with the Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Movement and Access of November 2005. The movement of exports through Rafah Crossing is of secondary importance, at best, given that the vast majority of exports are intended for marketing in Israel . Thus, all the goods entering Gaza and almost all the goods leaving it must move via the crossings between Gaza and Israel.

As mentioned above, almost all the movement of goods to and from Gaza passes through Karni Crossing. Under the Crossings Agreement, Israel undertook, among other things, to enable the orderly and continuous movement of goods though the crossing, and clear goals were set regarding the scope of activity at the crossing. Even before Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Israel did not meet this undertaking. Movement of goods through the crossing was conducted at a pace far too slow to allow for effective foreign trade.

The situation is much worse now. Since 12 June 2007, Israel has prohibited almost completely movement through this main artery, or through the other crossings under its control. Reports issued by OCHA and the Palestinian Trade Organization (Paltrade) in cooperation with the World Bank show that exports from Gaza stopped completely, and that, except for the supply of necessities to meet humanitarian and basic food needs (such as flour, sugar, oil, rice, and salt), imports into the Strip also ceased.

These measures have had a disastrous effect. As described in another report of Paltrade, Gazan industry is based on enterprises ninety-five percent of which rely on the importation of raw materials. Eighty percent of these enterprises need machines and replacement parts, which are imported, to operate. During the siege, raw materials have not entered Gaza, so eighty percent of the enterprises have had to close down operations. The remaining enterprises are operating at sixty-percent capacity. More than 1,300 shipping containers of imported products intended for Gaza are stuck in Israel, forcing importers to pay storage costs and late fees, and bear the heavy loss of expensive perishable goods. In the construction sector, building has stopped, or been delayed, primarily because of the lack of raw materials. The total economic losses during the first month of the siege alone are estimated at 20.6 million dollars. In this period, 3,190 businesses closed temporarily and 65,800 workers, who support 450,000 dependants, lost their job. As each day of siege passes, more business shut down and more Gazans find themselves without a means of livelihood.

Israel argues that the sweeping restrictions are “needed for security and result from the lack of coordination with the Palestinians.” It cannot be denied that within Gaza there are indeed entities which pose a threat to the security of citizens of Israel and that the present leadership in the Gaza Strip is responsible for some of these threats. The Israeli authorities have the right and indeed the duty to protect Israeli citizens from these threats. However, in doing so, they are not permitted to ignore the rights and needs of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. Because it holds effective control of Gaza’s foreign trade, Israel has a legal obligation to ensure that any harm to residents of the Gaza Strip resulting from the restrictions it has placed on movement at the border crossings it controls do not exceed the minimum necessary to realize the legitimate security purpose for which they were instituted. Imposition of the protracted economic siege that forces on Gazans a life of poverty and want is inconsistent with this duty.

Alternatives to the siege should be found that will enable the crossing of goods also in the present circumstances. The security threats in the Gaza Strip are nothing new, and ways have been found to cope with them in the past without completely stopping the movement of goods to and from Gaza. The same must be done now.

Regarding the claim of lack of coordination with the Palestinians, both the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli leadership must find a way to arrange passage through the border crossings and to prevent an economic crisis in Gaza, with all the human suffering such a crisis entails. However, even if the Palestinian leadership fails to meet its obligations on this point, that failure does not permit Israel to leave the civilian population of Gaza in distress, and it must do everything it can to find a solution, such as working through an intermediary, to bring the economic siege to an end.

Closing of Rafah Crossing and its consequences

Given that Gaza has no airport or seaport, and inasmuch as Israel controls all the other crossing points, Rafah Crossing is the only gateway through which Gazans can go abroad, and for this reason the crossing is of such great importance.

In the Crossings Agreement, the two sides agreed that the crossing would be operated by the Palestinian Authority, in cooperation with Egypt and under Israeli supervision by means of video cameras and monitoring of the lists of travelers. To ensure compliance with the agreement, it was agreed that observers on behalf of the European Union would be posted at the crossing. The two sides gave the observers supervisory powers and agreed that the crossing would not be opened unless the observers were present. Since 9 June, the observers have not been present at the crossing, and nobody is allowed to cross. As a result, many Gazans find themselves in great distress.

As noted above, some 6,000 Gazans who had left the Strip and were in Egypt when Hamas took control of the Strip have been unable to return to their homes and unite with their families. Many of them do not have the means to finance their continued stay in Egypt and lack proper housing accommodations, food, and medicines. Some, who were ill, have died while trapped on the other side of the border. An unknown number of Gazans are stuck elsewhere in the world. Residents wanting to leave Gaza for Egypt or elsewhere, including chronic patients and injured persons badly needing medical treatment unavailable in Gaza, remain imprisoned inside the Strip.

The persons and entities controlling the activity at the crossing — the head of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, Israel, Egypt, and the European Union to some extent — are responsible for this situation and must find a solution to the problem. Media reports indicate that the Israeli authorities and the head of the Palestinian Authority oppose opening the crossing to enable residents to enter Gaza from Egypt, apparently out of fear that Hamas would be strengthened by the uncontrolled entry of thousands of activists. Egypt refuses to open the crossing without Israel ‘s consent and in the absence of the European observers. A proposal whereby Israel would open the Kerem Shalom crossing to ease the suffering was rejected by the Hamas leadership in the Strip.

B’Tselem calls on all the relevant parties to reach an arrangement that will bring an end to the suffering of the people trapped on both sides of the crossings. All the parties are obligated to respect the human rights of the residents of Gaza and are forbidden to turn them into hostages in the power struggle being waged among them.

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