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A year after the Gaza war, Palestinians are still choking

Wednesday marked one year since the ceasefire that ended Israel’s unprecedented seven-week assault on the Gaza Strip. On the occasion of this week’s anniversary, an international coalition of 35 NGOs issued a new call for the end of Israel’s blockade.

“For a whole year the Israeli government has restricted basic and essential construction materials from entering Gaza,” stated the aid groups, who noted that “not one of the 19,000 homes that were bombed and destroyed has been fully rebuilt”.

A petition launched by the NGOs on the Avaaz online community – “World Leaders: Lift the Gaza Blockade” – had, at the time of writing, already attracted 538,000 signatures.

While the agencies acknowledged the roles played by Palestinian political division and Egypt’s frequent closure of the Rafah crossing, they maintained that Israel’s blockade represents the primary obstacle to reconstruction. “At this rate, it could take 17 years before Gaza is rebuilt.”

The central – often, sole – reason cited by Israel for its continuing blockade of Gaza is “security”. The NGOs are not deaf to these concerns – but they do not believe this gives Israel carte blanche to choke 1.8 million people and destroy their economy and social fabric.

However, the security argument is itself a red herring.

Israel imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as early as the 1990s, but a much more severe blockade was imposed following Hamas’s electoral success in 2006 and its subsequent defeat of Fatah’s forces following violent clashes in 2007.

The goal was clear – and it was not about security. As an official in Israel’s National Security Council put it at the time, the aim was to “damage Hamas’s economic position in Gaza and buy time for an increase in Fatah support”.

A secret US diplomatic cable in 2008, released by WikiLeaks, revealed how: “Israeli officials have confirmed on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.”

The key elements of Israel’s lockdown of the territory remained in place until the summer of 2010, when following the murderous attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, Israel sought to assuage international outrage by easing some of the measures.

Yet core, punitive policies remained in place, especially with regards to what the Israeli military calls a “separation policy” that prevents goods and people moving between the Gaza Strip and West Bank. This has affected family life, studies and businesses.

One of the best illustrations of the absurdity of Israel’s “security” argument is the block on goods exiting Gaza: the territory’s total exports dropped by 97 per cent between 2007 and 2012. This July, even after heralded Israeli “gestures”, a mere 99 truckloads of goods left Gaza for the West Bank, Israeli and international markets. The monthly average in 2005 was 777 truckloads.

The “security” rationale for the blockade is only one widely-propagated myth when it comes to Gaza. Contrary to what some maintain, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of settlers and redeployment of armed forces in 2005 – the so-called “disengagement” – did not end Israel’s status as occupier.

Under international law, a central element of the test for occupation is whether or not the state exercises “effective control” over the territory in question. Since 2005, Israel has retained control over five of Gaza’s six land crossings, its airspace and waters, and the Palestinian population registry.

Israel has also enforced, with lethal violence, an expanded “no go” buffer-zone near the border fence inside Gaza, and has reserved the right for its forces to routinely re-enter the territory based on “military necessity”.

Furthermore, under international law, the Gaza Strip constitutes part of one single territorial entity, along with the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Israel’s so-called “disengagement” could not, and did not, change the status of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

The United Nations (UN) has repeatedly affirmed that the Gaza Strip remains under Israeli occupation; for example, Security Council Resolution 1860, adopted 14-0 (the US abstained) on January 8, 2009, stressed “that the Gaza Strip constitutes an integral part of the territory occupied in 1967 and will be a part of the Palestinian state.”

In November 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague agreed that “Israel remains an occupying power under international law, based on the scope and degree of control that it has retained over the territory of Gaza following the 2005 disengagement”.

As well as misplaced confusion about Gaza’s occupied status post-disengagement, there is a third myth: that Israel’s withdrawal of settlers was a grand gesture towards peace. In fact, as I describe in my forthcoming eBook, The 2014 Gaza War: 21 Questions & Answers, this is far from reality.

First, the move was intended to relieve international pressure and freeze the peace process. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass told an interviewer in 2004 that the disengagement plan “makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure”.

Second, “disengagement” was openly designed to allow Israel to focus on the colonisation of the West Bank. Sharon himself told the Knesset that “whoever wishes to preserve the large Israeli settlement blocs under our control forever … must support the disengagement plan”.

Removing a few thousand settlers from Gaza, he told the Jewish Agency in June 2005, would enable Israel to focus its “efforts” on areas like “Greater Jerusalem” and the “[West Bank] settlement blocs”.

Sharon was clear, as he repeatedly stated, that he was removing settlers from Gaza “to strengthen those [areas] with a high strategic value for us”.

With settlers withdrawn and armed forces redeployed, Gaza was walled-off and contained, subject to periodic colonial disciplining: Israel has now launched seven separate operations against Gaza since 2005, killing some 4,500 Palestinians and injuring many more.

Ten years on, Israel’s stranglehold remains, with both bombs and blockade an indictment of Israel’s colonial cruelty and the international community’s inaction. Thus Gaza, including the war that ended one year ago this week, is a microcosm of the ongoing story of the colonisation of Palestine.

Published first by The National.

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