By Mohammed Omer
IN GAZA, WAR ALWAYS LOOMS on the horizon—any month, week, day or even moment might see an Israeli attack. Gazans walk on fragile ground.
Since weekly protests began in March 2018 along the border to pressure Israel to end its long-term economic blockade on Gaza, Israeli sharpshooters have killed and maimed tens of thousands of Palestinians. According to the U.N., 300 Palestinians were killed and 6,000 people were wounded in 2018. Some 29,000 others, including 1,800 women, were hurt by tear gas or rubber bullets. The 12-year blockade, intended to crush the Islamic movement administering the Gaza Strip, has restricted growth, quality of life and freedom of movement for Gazans.
Hamas and Israel reached a short-term “quiet for quiet” deal on Jan. 25, to continue monthly transfers of money from Qatar (now sent via the United Nations) for the needy and infrastructure projects. In return, Hamas promised to restrain Friday protesters and rein in the Islamic Jihad group. Israeli live fire on Feb. 1 wounded 32 Palestinian protesters and tear gas canisters wounded two paramedics, so it is doubtful Israeli soldiers have been told to stand down.
What Gaza really needs—in addition to cash—to address critical needs and restore daily life is rarely discussed in the media. Gaza, which is twice the size of Washington, DC, is almost completely sealed off by walls and borders. Of its population of two million people, only a few hundred are allowed to cross the borders each month. Unemployment has risen exponentially, and is now the highest in the Arab region at over 50 percent, according to the World Bank.
Israel, however—which, through its blockade, controls Gaza’s borders and economy—believes any improvement in Gaza’s economy merely strengthens the power of Hamas. And for its part, the PA fears that empowering Hamas will widen the division between Gaza and the West Bank, making it difficult to attain a viable state.
It is Gaza’s people who pay the price for these calculations. “The situation gets worse and worse every day,” said Dr. Ibrahim Mummar, a university professor in Gaza. “In fact, there is nothing to hope for—everything remains broken, damaged and bombed. Every positive effort is made to fail,” he added.
In addition to open borders, Gazans need drinking water and a functioning power supply. According to the United Nations, 97 percent of Gaza’s water is contaminated and undrinkable.
Mobility across open borders is essential to achieve not only the jobs and economic growth Gaza needs to survive, but also the opportunity for the younger generation of entrepreneurs to expand and prosper. Gaza is celebrated by the region’s private sector for its young high-tech generation. It’s a recognized hub that can produce information technology (IT) services to the Gulf and Europe (see p. 45). Gaza’s young people can only fully connect with the world economy and provide office e-support to Gulf businesses and Europe in the absence of such obstacles as closed border fences and daily hours-long power outages. It’s no surprise that the new generation of Palestinians cares less about political factions, perceiving as it does that neither Hamas nor Fatah responds to its wider needs. But even a strawberry farmer needs an open border in order to export his products to Russia, Europe and the Gulf.
One of the main ironies of the Gaza Strip issue is that neither Israel nor Hamas wants an escalation to the conflict. Hamas, after all, has experienced the massive destruction caused by Israel’s repeated assaults and endured the slow reconstruction that followed, which has caused the party to become unpopular. Israel knows that launching yet another war on Gaza will only bring it more global condemnation.
The Hamas leadership wants an end to Israel’s protracted and punitive blockade, as well as a long-term cease-fire, but it also wants to maintain its own control of Gaza. For its part, Israel fears that a long-term hudna [truce] will only empower Hamas. Perhaps that is why there is no serious Israeli or Hamas mediator able to move beyond the current short-term quiet-for-quiet deal.
Any talks must of course include the PA, Hamas and Israel. Gaza needs a framework backed by the international community with both a short- and long-term strategy for economic stability along with economic initiatives, and the political arrangements needed to avert conflict and achieve the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank.
Ultimately, only freedom of movement will bring economic growth to Gaza, and that freedom requires opening Gaza’s doors to the world. Instead of the constant fear that war could come any day, every day, Gazans need peace of mind and peace of life.