For such a small piece of land, the Gaza Strip sure has seen a lot of heartache.
The 139-square-mile sliver of territory is bordered by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, and, for the last 61 years, has been handed off from one ruling power to another like a hot potato. In 2007, it was Hamas’s turn, and since then the strip has been on lockdown. A blockade, enforced by both Egypt and Israel, has kept goods from going in or coming out of Gaza without Israeli permission, creating a society dependent on humanitarian aid and smuggled goods.
The stated goal of the blockade is to keep weapons from ending up in the hands of Hamas, a vocally anti-Israel group, categorized by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization. This policy, however, has also had a profound impact on 1.6 million citizens of Gaza, almost half of whom are below the age of 14 and 70 percent of whom are refugees under the care of UN agencies.
The effect of the blockade became more profound in December 2008, when the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel fell apart, culminating in a three week Israeli offensive that left 13 Israelis and more than 1,400 Palestinians dead. Palestinian homes, schools, universities and hospitals were destroyed and, because of the inability to import construction materials, have largely remained destroyed.
In May 2010, a coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations organized an aid flotilla which planned to defy the naval blockade and deliver supplies, including the prohibited cement, directly to the Gaza Strip. Instead, Israel Defense Forces boarded the boats at sea, and nine people aboard the Turkish-commissioned Mavi Marmara were killed. Both the IDF and the ship’s passengers claim that the other party instigated the fighting, but either way, what motivated the boat’s passengers to take such a risk? Is there no better way to get supplies into Gaza?
Trucks of Humanitarian Aid
There are three main ways Gaza receives supplies, but only one of which Israel approves. Humanitarian aid, dispatched by the truckload, regularly leaves Jordan for the Gaza Strip, and with Israel’s permission. “We send food, money and medical supplies,” said Abdullah Sarhan, an employee with the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization. The JHCO has sent over 300 aid convoys to the Gaza Strip since the end of the December 2008-January 2009 Israeli offensive, the most recent of which was dispatched on May 30 and consisted of 20 trucks of supplies. Much of the supplies are donated by Jordanian civil societies and charities, but the JHCO has also dispatched goods supplied by other countries, such as Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait.
“We don’t send anything we know is forbidden [to enter the Strip],” Sarhan said, but when it comes to the Gaza blockade, what is forbidden can change from one day to the next. Israeli authorities have not publically declared what items are prohibited from entering the Strip, but, according to a list compiled by Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit, banned goods, which include weapons and construction materials, also include jam, vinegar, fresh meat, fishing rods, newspapers, and A4 paper. “Dates aren’t allowed either,” Sarhan added.
There is “neither rhyme nor reason” to it, said Peter Ford, representative of UNRWA’s commissioner-general in Amman. UNRWA, the United Nations agency concerned with Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries, is responsible for collecting and distributing the incoming aid in the Gaza Strip. The JHCO hires a shipping company to drive its convoys from Jordan to Gaza, passing through Israel along the way. “The aid is inspected twice,” said Ford. “First at the Jordan-Israel border and again at Erez crossing prior to entering Gaza.” Inspections are carried out by Israeli customs and security personnel, who sometimes bar trucks from entering without making the reasons for their decisions known. For example, a Human Rights Watch report states that, as of October 2009, 11 truckloads of stationery had been held up in Israel for more than a year, denied access to the Gaza Strip. The only other way for Gazans to get their hands on basic school supplies that season was to smuggle them in.
The Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza has been closed for most of the three years that Hamas has been in control of the coastal enclave. That, however, has not been enough to keep Egyptian goods out of Gazan hands. An extensive system of tunnels that used to be used primarily to smuggle weapons has now become the source of at least 80 percent of Gaza’s imports, according to World Bank statistics.
International media, from the Christian Science Monitor to Germany’s Spiegel magazine, have reported that the tunnels are used to smuggle all kinds of goods, such as fuel, light bulbs, rice and even sheep. The tunnels have become so widespread that Hamas has reportedly begun to regulate them, forcing tunnel owners to pay taxes on the goods they bring in. But while owning a tunnel may now be a relatively risk-free enterprise in the Gaza Strip, the fates of those who dig and operate the tunnels are less certain.
Besides the dangers posed by collapsing tunnels, tunnel diggers have also been killed by Israeli air strikes and Egyptian explosions. In April 2010, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri reportedly told ArabNews.com that at least 40 smugglers had been poisoned by toxic gases since the blockade was first established in 2007. In January 2010, Egyptian authorities announced plans to construct a steel wall along the Egyptian-Gaza border that will descend 100 feet below ground. This attempt to shut down the smuggling industry may lead to increased resourcefulness on the part of Gazan smugglers, or it may sever the Gaza Strip’s only dependable lifeline to the outside world.
Aid from Activists
The deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara may have garnered the most international attention, but the passengers aboard the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla were not the first foreign activists to attempt to defy the naval blockade. Eight previous attempts to bring humanitarian aid have occurred since the siege on Gaza began, three of which were organized by Viva Palestina, a registered British charity. In December 2009, Nicholas Hall, a sixty-year-old man from York, departed with the organization’s third convoy to the Gaza Strip. Hall rode with the 150-vehicle convoy in a fully-stocked ambulance across ten countries spanning two continents, ending up in Aqaba, Jordan’s port to the Red Sea.
According to Hall, bringing the aid in this way had three purposes. “One is [raising] political awareness throughout the countries that we were traveling through. The second is actually delivering the aid, and the third is breaking the isolation.” After arriving in Aqaba, Egyptian authorities informed the activists that they would have to enter the Gaza Strip not by sea, but through the Egyptian city of Al Arish. Once all of the people and goods had arrived, Al Arish authorities demanded 59 vehicles be handed over to Israel, which the activists refused. Peaceful demonstrations turned into violent clashes, and, according to convoy members, about 20 activists required hospitalization.
By the time the aid convoy successfully entered the Gaza Strip, Hall had been forced to return to York due to personal obligations. A former town planner and therapeutic gardening enthusiast, Hall has no real ties to Palestine. In fact, part of what has motivated him to get involved in the pro-Palestine movement is the role his British forefathers played in the establishment of Israel in the Middle East. “All of the insecurity we’ve got, all the terrorism that we’ve experienced and all of the loss of civil liberties,” he said. “It’s all traceable back to the injustice of 1948.” He also credits the sense that he had been “conned” for much of his life. “For 30 years, [I was hearing] all this stuff about Israel as the victim when actually they were oppressors and I didn’t know. And that really makes me…” he paused, searching for the right word. “Cross.”
Changes to Come?
Although the Mavi Marmara failed to deliver its cargo directly to Gaza, it has managed to draw attention to the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. In response to international outcry, Egypt has reopened the Rafah border crossing to some civilian traffic, and Israel has announced its intention to loosen restrictions on the coastal enclave. However, it is easy to remain cynical. “The situation is very fluid,” said Ford of UNRWA. “Speaking from experience, we can’t assume there will be an agreement on easing the blockade or, if there was an agreement, that it would be implemented.”
“We’re not expecting a breakthrough any time soon.”