By Matthew Duss, Special to CNN
Matthew Duss is a policy analyst and director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress. The views expressed are his own.
As rumors of a possible Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas spread, it’s important to understand the reality of life in Gaza that forms the background of the current round of fighting, and the policy changes that must be made in the hopes of preventing yet another round in the future. Specifically, Israel and the United States should support Egypt as it works with Gaza’s Hamas government to end the rocket attack against Israel, but also find a mutually agreeable formula for ending the isolation of Gaza from the neighboring region.
Israel has occupied the Gaza Strip since 1967, when it took control from Egypt in the 1967 War. Security around Gaza was considerably tightened during the Second Intifada, which saw multiple suicide terror attacks by Hamas against civilians inside Israel. In response to Hamas’ abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006, and further in response to the breakdown of the Palestinian unity government and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, Israel enacted a strict blockade against Gaza, with the support of both the U.S. and Egyptian governments. As Dov Wiesglass, an adviser to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, described it, “The idea [was] to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” in order to put pressure on the Hamas government.
In addition to limiting the transfer of goods, the closure policy also severely limits the movement of Palestinians themselves between the two Palestinian territories. As the Israeli human rights group Gisha reports, this accords with the Israeli government’s “separation policy,” which is expressly designed to exacerbate the division between Gaza and the West Bank as political units, and between the two factions, Hamas and Fatah, that control them.
In 2010, Israel began to ease its closure, though it still maintains strict controls on the entrance of construction materials, as an almost complete ban on exports, which severely constrains economic development in the territory. Currently, some 70 percent of Gazans are reliant on humanitarian aid.
The past years have also seen the development of a vast network of smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border whose growth and profitability have been facilitated by the continued closure. In addition to serving as a major tax revenue source for the Hamas government, these tunnels also provide a major thruway for precisely those weapons that Hamas and other militant groups have been firing against Israel over the past week.
It’s important to understand that increasing legitimate import and export traffic would draw profits away from the smugglers, thus denying Hamas a significant source of revenue. Significantly easing the closure would also remove a convenient excuse that Hamas has used to draw attention away from its own considerable governing failures, and force it to attend to Gaza’s people’s needs, and explain to them why its attacks have failed to bring a resolution to the conflict, rather than simply railing against the Israeli siege.
To be clear, Hamas bears the responsibility to prevent rocket attacks on Israel, and Israel has the right to protect itself from threats emanating from Gaza. But it’s time to recognize that the Gaza closure policy has not served this purpose, any more than Hamas’ rockets genuinely advance the Palestinian national cause.
Hamas will surely claim any easing of the closure policy as their victory, just as they did when more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit. But this isn’t reason enough not to change a policy that has utterly failed.