Tightening the Noose: The Institutionalized Impoverishment of Gaza, 2005–2010

This article outlines and analyzes Israel’s Gaza policy during the period from 2005 to 2010. Based on primary materials, including the testimony of Israeli officials before the Turkel Commission investigating the Mavi Marmara incident, classified documents that have come to light through Wikileaks, and Israeli government documentation, the article argues that in the wake of Israel’s evacuation of the territory under its 2005 Disengagement Plan, the Gaza Strip became the object of a deliberate and sustained policy of institutionalized impoverishment. Looking at Israeli policy-making as both process and outcome, the article highlights how measures ostensibly implemented to “punish” Hamas—from the incremental tightening of restrictions to the imposition of a full blockade, in addition to periodic military assaults—have pauperized a large proportion of Gaza’s more than 1.5 million inhabitants.

“We won’t allow for a humanitarian crisis, but have no intention of making their lives easier. And the harder their lives, excluding humanitarian damage, we will not allow them to lead a pleasant life.”

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, 21 January 20081

“There is not, and never was, any intention to harm the Palestinian population living in Gaza.”

Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, 25 October 20102

MARKED BY military occupation, poverty, and oppression, Gaza’s recent history has been punctuated by wars and the impact of two intifadas. The Palestinians of Gaza have lost and rebuilt countless times—their freedom increasingly constrained by the limits of a fence and the Israeli diktat of checkpoints, permits, and closures.3 Against this backdrop, Israel’s promise of disengagement—publicly announced in 2004—was internationally acclaimed as a step in the right direction. For the first time since the onset and consolidation of occupation, no Israeli soldiers would be present, and no settlements or checkpoints would prevent the movement of people or slice off Gaza’s most fertile territory from its owners. Yet far from disengaging, Israeli policymakers remained deeply involved in Gazan affairs. While it abandoned a physical presence in the Strip, Israel resorted to remote management of the territory, dictating the lives of its more than 1.5 million inhabitants.

Drawing on documents from the proceedings of the Turkel Commission,4 official Israeli and American materials, statistics, and media reports, this article presents Israel’s policy toward Gaza as both process and outcome. As such, it examines the debates and motivation among Israeli political decision makers, outlines the practical implementation of the policies they formulated, and assesses the impact of these policies on the population of Gaza.

Starting with the “disengagement,” the first part of the article focuses on Israeli policy-making from the formulation of the Disengagement Plan in 2004 to September 2007, when Israel declared Gaza a hostile entity and instituted a full-blown blockade, which in most aspects continues to this day. The second part of the article discusses policy implementation and its impact on the ground, emphasizing the rhetoric and reality of what I will argue has been the deliberate, institutionalized impoverishment of Gaza. Although Israel’s policy and its key effects remain in force, with an additional overlay of factors resulting from regional, and specifically Egyptian, events, the discussion focuses on the period leading up to the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010.

“Disengagement”: Prelude to the Gaza Blockade

Between 17 August and 12 September 2005, the world’s eyes were fixed on the Gaza Strip as Israel unilaterally pulled out its military installations and civilian settlements from territory it had occupied for almost forty years. When in April 2004 it announced its intention to withdraw from the Strip, the Israeli government stated that the so-called Disengagement Plan was designed to break a “harmful” stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations.5 In fact, the exact opposite was the purpose. By “disengaging,” Israel sought to neutralize the peace process and more specifically the road map, an international initiative to launch a formal, goal-driven, reciprocal process that had been put forward by the Middle East Quartet exactly a year earlier.6

The road map posed serious domestic and foreign policy challenges to Israeli policymakers. First, it was based on the parallel fulfillment by the two sides of specific obligations: for the Palestinians, the cessation of violence, and institutional and security reform; for the Israelis, the cessation of all settlement activity, including so-called natural growth. Second, the road map’s stated goal was the realization of “an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.”7 A halt to settlements and the prospect of a Palestinian state were anathema to Israel; hence, its deep opposition to the road map, and its own counterplan: disengagement. Dov Weissglas, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s close aide and chief of staff, spelled out the connection between the two plans bluntly: “Thedisengagement ...supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.”8 Some years later, former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni would make explicit the same linkage. Testifying before the Turkel Commission, she clearly articulated the Likud party’s dilemma vis-à-vis the Quartet’s initiative. “[D]o we remain in the first stage of the Road Map where, basically, there are Israeli obligations and Palestinian obligations? Or do we create an act that is an additional act? And here I come to the Disengagement.”9

U.S. approval of the Disengagement Plan (expressed in a letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 14 April 2004) and the acquiescence of the international community would prove a powerful tool in Israel’s hands. The letter endorsed not only Israel’s continued control of Gaza’s access points, and of its coastal waters and airspace, but also its “basic right to self-defense, including taking preventive steps as well as responding by using force against threats that will emerge from the Gaza Strip.”10 These two elements—full control and carte blanche on military action—constituted the blueprint for Israel’s future dealings with the territory. While the new arrangement excluded a permanent Israeli presence inside the Gaza Strip and acknowledged the possibility of future changes, the gates to Gaza were left firmly in Israeli hands.

As far as the Sharon government was concerned, the evacuation marked an end to Israel’s occupation of the Strip. Under that interpretation, according to international humanitarian law, Israel was relieved of all responsibility for the welfare of Gaza’s population, although it would still be required to provide essential humanitarian supplies in keeping with the laws of armed conflict.11 This was also the interpretation of Israel’s Chief Military Advocate, who argued that “on September 12, 2005—in practice, the completion of the Disengagement Plan—and in our concept, the concept of the State of Israel, from that timeframe onwards there is no longer a belligerent occupation of the Gaza Strip. We remained in a state of armed conflict but there is no longer belligerent occupation.”12

Economic Dependence Unchanged

In Israeli political rhetoric, the Gaza evacuation carried “potential for improvement in the Palestinian economy and living conditions.”13 Addressing the opening session of the UN General Assembly on 15 September 2005, days after the pullout was completed, Prime Minister Sharon argued that with “the end of Israeli control over and responsibility for the Gaza Strip,” the Palestinians were now allowed, “if they so wish, to develop their economy and build a peace-seeking society.”14 In reality, however, Gaza remained deeply dependent on Israel for its economic survival and future prosperity.

Because Gaza had neither a seaport nor an airport, its economic fate was irrevocably tied to the “umbilical cord” of land crossings.15 Under the 1994 Paris Protocol, an integral part of the Oslo accords, all legal trade from Gaza had to be channeled to or via Israel.16 The November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, negotiated by the United States, upheld Israel’srole in determining the volume of goods going through the commercial crossings, with Rafah added on as a passenger terminal and potential future site for export to Egypt.17 An indication of what was to come could also be found in the Disengagement Plan’s annex, which stipulated that “in line with Israel’s interest in encouraging greater Palestinian economic independence,” the entry of Palestinian workers into Israel would be reduced “to the point that it ceases completely.”18 (Their numbers had already declined elevenfold to a mere three thousand in the year following the onset of the second intifada in 2000.)19

The Gaza economy was thus to depend on Israel’s easing of restrictions and the establishment of a sustainable business environment. As specified by Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, however, the relaxation of Israeli restrictions was contingent on improvements in the Palestinian security sphere. “We are all interested in a successful Gaza,” Regev stated. “We’re all interested in seeing the Gaza economy thrive—but they [the Palestinians] can also play a part.”20 Thus, responsibility for Gaza’s economic success was laid at the door of the Palestinian Authority (PA), shifting the focus away from Israel’s continued control of the Gaza Strip and onto a weakened Palestinian president.

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