The flotilla was intended to challenge the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, a closure that has been decried as a violation of international law. While Israel prevented the boats from reaching the Gaza Strip, the initiative was successful in bringing media attention to the closure.
But Israel remains victorious on one crucial front. A tremendous majority of those talking about the blockade — from the mainstream media to critics and activists — use 2007 as the start-date, unintentionally lending legitimacy to Israel’s cause and effect explanation, an argument that pegs the closure to political events.
According to the Israeli government, the blockade was a response to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. The stated goals of the closure are to weaken Hamas, to stop rocket fire and to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in Gaza since 2006.
But the blockade — which the Israeli government has openly called “economic warfare” — did not begin in 2007. Nor did it start in 2006, with Israel’s economic sanctions against Gaza. The hermetic closure of Gaza is the culmination of a process that began 20 years ago.
It is important to note, first, the groundwork that made this process so devastating. In her definitive piece on the economic de-development of the Gaza Strip, published in 1987, Dr. Sara Roy uses data from the years of 1967 to 1985 to illustrate how the Israelis turned the Gaza Strip into a captive market and made Palestinian residents a labor pool dependent on Israel. This was achieved, in part, by limiting Gaza’s exports and commercial production. These early restrictions (or economic warfare, to use the Israeli term) predate Hamas. So when freedom of movement was limited during the First Intifada, Gaza was already feeling pinched.
Sari Bashi is the founder and director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement. In an interview conducted with this writer, Bashi remarked that the gradual closure of Gaza began in 1991, when Israel canceled the general exit permit that allowed most Palestinians to move freely through Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It was then that non-Jewish residents of Gaza and the West Bank were required to obtain individual permits.
This was during the First Intifada. While the mere mention of the word invokes the image of suicide bombers in the Western imagination, it’s important to bear in mind that the First Intifada began as a non-violent uprising comprised of civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotts of Israeli goods. So, that the general exit permit was canceled during this time suggests that this early hit on Palestinian freedom of movement was not rooted in security concerns. It seems, rather, a retributive act, intended to punish Palestinians for daring to resist the Israeli occupation.
Sporadic closures of the Gaza Strip started in 1993, Bashi continues, following a wave of suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians. Because a tremendous majority of Palestinians are not and were not suicide bombers, however, the restrictions on movement again constituted collective punishment for the actions of a few — foreshadowing the nature of the blockade to come.
Over the years, there were other suggestions that a hermetic, punitive closure was on the horizon. “Movement [was] gradually restricted,” Bashi says, adding that in 1995, the Israelis erected a fence around the Gaza Strip.
At the beginning of the Second Intifada, in September of 2000, Palestinian students were subject to a blanket ban, forbidding travel from Gaza to the West Bank. At this time, the Israelis also closed the “safe passage” — an armored convoy that facilitated Palestinian movement between the Occupied Territories.
As the Second Intifada wore on, so did restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom. In March of 2005, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and HaMoked penned a report titled, “One Big Prison: Freedom of Movement to and from the Gaza Strip on the Eve of the Disengagement Plan.” That there was the need to write such a report — and that the NGO’s findings elicited such an alarming title — suggests that the blockade was well under way at this time, more than two years before the Israeli government would have you believe it began.
B’Tselem’s and HaMoked’s March 2005 report stated that only a small number of Gazans were being allowed into Israel to work. Tens of thousands had lost their jobs due to the restrictions on movement.
The 2005 disengagement supposedly signaled the end of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. But, in reality, it brought more Israeli limitations on the movement of both people and goods. While the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access — brokered by the U.S. and signed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority — should have eased those restrictions, it didn’t. The number of day laborers exiting Gaza via the Erez Crossing offers a dramatic example. In January of 2000, before the Second Intifada began, an average of 17,635 day laborers passed through Erez every day. In January of 2005, that number had dropped to 49.
Throughout the years there were upticks and downturns in the amount of workers exiting the strip. And in 2005, too, there was a brief rebound. But in 2006, the small number of Gazans who were still working in Israel were banned from entering, cutting them off from their jobs at a time when the Strip’s economy was thin to the point of breaking.
As a result of this recent history, the situation in Gaza today is stark: the economy has been driven into the ground; some estimates put the unemployment rate at almost 50 percent; four out of every five Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on humanitarian aid; hospitals are running out of supplies; the chronically ill cannot always get exit permits, which can lead to access-related deaths; students are sometimes prevented from reaching their universities abroad; families have been shattered.
While the flotilla might have successfully brought the blockade into the mainstream consciousness, it missed an opportunity to really push the envelope by reframing the conversation altogether.
Photo: Mya Guarnieri. Activists on the US Boat to Gaza, during the stand-off with the Greek coast guard.