The Middle East Channel

Shalit deal presents Israel with opportunity in Gaza

On the morning of June 25, 2006, I called an Israeli television reporter to suggest a story about students from Gaza enrolled in an occupational therapy degree program but unable to access their studies, due to an Israeli-imposed ban on travel from Gaza to the West Bank.  Something was going on in Gaza — excited ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

On the morning of June 25, 2006, I called an Israeli television reporter to suggest a story about students from Gaza enrolled in an occupational therapy degree program but unable to access their studies, due to an Israeli-imposed ban on travel from Gaza to the West Bank.  Something was going on in Gaza — excited radio announcers reported, every 15 minutes, "exchanges of fire" — but the military censor had not yet allowed details to be released.

"I empathize with your students, but it will be a long time before anyone will be open to hearing about them," said the reporter. It was, of course, the morning that the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants from Gaza, and for the past five years, his captivity has overwhelmed discussion of Israel’s policy toward Gaza, especially its restrictions on movement of goods and people.

With last week’s release of Shalit, together with more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the residents of Israel and Gaza have an opportunity for liberation, too — from a policy of closure that has stifled normal life in Gaza and isolated Israel, leaving it vulnerable at a critical time of regional volatility.

The closure of Gaza did not originate with Shalit’s captivity, but in its wake, Israel limited travel to the most extreme humanitarian cases. In June 2007, with the takeover of Gaza’s internal control by the Hamas regime, Israel restricted movement of goods to a minimum, too. The results were predictable: Unable to bring in raw materials or export finished goods, a majority of Gaza’s factories shut down. Unemployment and poverty rose, as did dependence on international and Islamic charity.

But the policy, intended to pressure Hamas to release Shalit and stop the rocket fire on southern Israeli towns, only isolated Israel diplomatically and weakened those in Gaza who served as counter-weights to the influence of the Hamas regime. With rising unemployment, young people vied for some of the 45,000 public service jobs offered by the Hamas government. Unable to bring in goods via Israeli-controlled crossings, merchants turned to the tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, where supply is controlled and taxed by Hamas. And Israel faced international condemnation and even ridicule for a policy in which senior military officials held weekly discussions to determine that cinnamon would be permitted into Gaza, but coriander banned.

Under pressure following the botched May 2010 interception of a Turkish flotilla bound for Gaza, Israel canceled the ban on raw materials and consumer products but continues to ban export, entry of construction materials, and the movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank. I have not met a single Israeli military official, pundit, or politician who thought these measures would help release Shalit or stop the rockets, but so long as Shalit was in captivity, the Israeli government used the closure policy as an expression of national anger. Unwilling to accede to Hamas demands in the prisoner release deal and unable to release Shalit through military action, Israel continued its "civilian" closure, blocking not only weapons and suspected militants but also hairdressers seeking professional training and food manufacturers selling date bars to schoolchildren in the West Bank. Not a single truckload of export has left Gaza since May. Travel between Gaza and the West Bank is less than 1 percent of pre-2000 levels.

At the same time, Israel is facing growing regional challenges, even as U.S. influence here wanes. Relations with Egypt are the most precarious they have been since the 1979 peace accord, which some Egyptian officials are openly calling to reconsider. Turkey, once a close military ally, expelled Israel’s ambassador and threatens to send war ships to escort future flotillas to Gaza. The border between the Assad regime’s Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was breached during a wave of state-sponsored demonstrations unthinkable prior to the unrest in Syria. The closure of Gaza has drawn the ire of regional and to some extent European leaders and serves as a focal point for Western activists questioning U.S. backing of the current Israeli government’s policies.

Israel cannot afford a policy that is undermining its diplomatic capital while serving absolutely no security interest. And the United States cannot afford the anti-American sentiment that has been exacerbated by dissatisfaction with the actions of its closest regional ally.

Shalit’s release provides Israel the opportunity to allow rational self-interest — and respect for individual rights — to guide its policy toward the million and a half Palestinians living in Gaza and to allow them to travel and transfer goods, subject to individual security screenings. Whether Netanyahu presents the policy as an extension of his promise of "economic peace" to Gaza or a continuation of the easing of the closure that began last year, he would benefit from ample political cover. The people of Gaza deserve a chance to access the resources they need to build a healthy, prosperous society, integrated with the West Bank and able to live in peace next to Israel. And the Israeli people deserve leaders who understand that long-term security cannot be achieved unless ordinary people in Gaza are permitted to live ordinary lives.

Sari Bashi is the Executive Director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization promoting the right to freedom of movement in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Sari Bashi is a Robina Foundation visiting human rights fellow at Yale Law School and a former researcher at Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @saribashi

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