Added to the list of esteemed speakers we have been privileged to host was Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times. He came to speak about Gaza, where he recently visited. His remarks constituted essentially the only time during our seminar that we heard someone speak at length about life in Gaza today following the Israel-Hamas war in January. Our focus up to this point was mainly on Israel and the West Bank. Maybe this is because the situation in Gaza seems almost hopeless, while in the West Bank maybe something can actually be done to move towards a solution. Maybe it’s easier to withdraw Israeli settlements and ease the occupation than to rebuild a devastated infrastructure and rejuvenate a flat-lined economy under an often hostile Hamas government in Gaza. While the problems in Gaza aren’t as severe as say Sudan or Somalia, life there is relatively harsh. Even though Israel physically pulled out of Gaza several years ago, it remains in complete control of the territory. Israel controls all of its borders, including its border along the Mediterranean Sea, and Gazan airspace. Only items deemed by the Israeli government as meeting basic needs, such as food and water, are allowed into Gaza. Not much else.
This is reminiscent of the sanctions regime imposed against Saddam Hussein following the Gulf War in 1991. Anything that was deemed a “dual use” good was not legally allowed into the country. Dual use meant that the good could be used for both peaceful and military purposes. You can imagine how such a strict import sanctions regime affected the country. Saddam had a wide variety of resources, which he could utilize to keep himself in power during such a period. Not only that, Saddam actually got more powerful this time, while the Iraqi people suffered. Dinner was still ready and Saddam’s beds were still made in all of his palaces across the country in expectation that he would show up unannounced. He continued to wield unfettered power as he traded with allies under the UN radar. All the while the average Iraqi was sinking deeper into poverty. Paradoxically, the sanctions hurt no one but innocent Iraqis.
The situation in Gaza could turn out similarly as Hamas can rely on Syria and Iran for support while nothing really flows to the Palestinians. It’s equivalent to Israeli collective punishment against the Palestinians in Gaza for electing an Islamic party to power whose charter contains the dismantling of the Israeli state as a prime objective. However, is this really the fault of the Palestinians as a people? In 2005, Hamas ran a political campaign offering a new way forward in the wake of the corruption of Fatah and Arafat. It was the classic “change” campaign, which promotes a seemingly brand new style of politics for people frustrated with the status quo. In addition to the social services it provided, that’s a big reason why Hamas won, not necessarily because it sought to replace Israel with an Islamic, Palestinian state. Average Palestinians, who are highly educated and often secular, care more about putting food on the table than restoring the Islamic Caliphate. Hamas was the alternative to the corruption of Arafat and his political cronies who used the plight of the Palestinians to tuck away millions of aid dollars in Swiss bank accounts.
Palestinians are now paying a heavy price for electing that alternative. The economy in Gaza went from very bad to devastated after the Israeli bombardment. This is not to say that Israel was wrong in defending itself against constant Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, only that its response damaged much more than Hamas targets. Schools, homes, factories, and a United Nations building were taken out. Hamas provocation and Israeli retaliation have resulted in Gaza’s current quandry and normal Palestinians have been stuck in the middle. Now comes the impossible task of rebuilding without building materials and breathing life into an economy with no ability to import or export. Gaza faces the daunting necessity of providing adequate government services without widespread international recognition.
A big boost could come in the form of a Palestinian state, where Gaza and the West Bank could be connected via a road or a tunnel. Goods and people could move freely between the linked territories, and borders would be opened up to the global economy. Palestinians educated abroad could come back to their homeland and take part in development projects and capacity-building. The establishment of a true Palestine would flip the sign from “Sorry, We’re Closed” to “Yes, We’re Open.” Statehood means a lot, for both West Bankers and Gazans. Palestinian statehood would also help Israel, especially in terms of its image abroad and its security, at least in some respects. Hopefully, Israel will realize that a rising tide in Palestine will lift Israeli boats as well.