Last September marked the 10-year anniversary of the ostensible end of Gaza’s 38-year occupation. Following Israel’s "unilateral disengagement" in 2005, aspirations for greater independence for Gaza were swiftly crushed by a blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt after Hamas’s election in 2006.
The blockade, of course, remains in place today and has had profound social and economic ramifications for the 1.8 million Palestinians living in what is frequently described as the world’s largest open-air prison.
Out of Gaza's five border crossings, four of them are controlled by Israel. In the rare event that any of these crossings are opened, only a select few Gazans are allowed to travel, despite a provision in the Oslo Accords which requires Israel to allow the safe passage of Gazans to the West Bank.
The movement of Gaza’s population is heavily restricted and the exclave’s airspace, maritime areas, and monetary market are controlled by Israel. Gaza is deprived of everything from the essential (fuel, medical supplies, building materials) to the absurd (the sale of processed hummus, baby wipes, and blankets was banned for some time before November 2009, meaning that Gaza’s population relied solely on humanitarian organisations to bring them in, although they could still be turned away at the border).
“The Israeli occupation tries its best to justify its suffocating restrictions by convincing the West that the blockade is necessary to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hamas in Gaza,” Isra Saleh Al-Namey, a journalist based in Gaza, said in an interview with Ahram Online. “But the siege [is meant] to punish the Palestinians for electing Hamas in the legislative elections.”
Israel’s ongoing blockade and biennial military assaults are responsible for Gaza’s de-development, what the UN describes as “a process by which development is not merely hindered, but reversed.”
Gaza’s unemployment rate is a stagnant 43 percent with no recovery in sight. The World Bank’s May 2015 Economic Monitoring Report on Gaza explains that “the closure of tunnels with Egypt and in particular the 2014 summer war shaved some $460 million off Gaza’s economy, leading to a 14 percent contraction of its GDP.”
The World Bank also reports that Gaza’s economy in the last few years “has been roughly 250 percent worse than that of any relevant comparators.”
“Nothing has progressed since the last war. It is only a matter of deterioration on all fronts,” says Al-Namey. “The reconstruction process is very slow and construction materials are denied in Gaza under a pretext that they might be of dual use.”
Sinai as a last resort
Imports of critically-needed supplies are restricted, with Israel routinely preventing the delivery by land and sea of basic goods, forcing Palestinians in Gaza to rely on a network of smuggling tunnels connecting the strip with Egypt’s Sinai.
According to the UN’s 2015 report on economic developments in the occupied Palestinian territories, the tunnels are “yet another mechanism to respond to the economic blockade of Gaza, [allowing Palestinians] to partially circumvent Israel’s restrictions on the importation of fuel, cement, construction materials, seeds, etc.”
Access to these products is further restricted by Hamas, as the group controls the tunnels and wields the power to select who within the Gaza Strip will have access to essential goods.
With the unregulated flow of goods comes the fear that the tunnels will be used to smuggle weapons and militants, fears the Egyptian government has repeatedly echoed.
To stem the supposed flow of weapons and militant fighters, Egypt’s military has recently dug makeshift canals and flooded them with seawater along the border with Gaza. In doing so, Egypt has plugged up one of Gaza’s last remaining lifelines to the outside world.
In November alone, the Egyptian military declared that it had destroyed 20 tunnels. In October 2014, it announced that it had destroyed 1,813 tunnels since 2011, or what amounts to anywhere between 80-95 percent of the once-existing network.
‘A new type of strategic threat’
Despite the massive blows dealt to Gaza’s economy and infrastructure, Palestine and its supporters have found an increasingly effective way to fight back.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched in 2005, is inspired by the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa and is described as “an inclusive, nonviolent human rights movement that seeks to hold Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid accountable to international law” through boycott, divestment and sanctions in all fields — academic, cultural, economic, and military.
In interview with Ahram Online, Omar Barghouti, Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, emphasised that “the rights of Palestinians cannot be achieved without strong internal resistance and effective external pressure, particularly in the form of BDS.”
“Israel is still getting away with murder, literally, of thousands of innocent Palestinians, including hundreds of children, only because of complicity from the US, EU, and other governments, including Arab regimes,” Barghouti says.
The pressure that is being put on Israel through this global movement should not be underestimated. The efficacy of BDS is made evident by the Israeli government’s repeated condemnations of it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasked the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs with fighting BDS, while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has recently characterised the boycott of Israel as a “first-rate strategic threat.”
The 2012-13 report for the Jewish People Policy Institute lamented that, “It took several years for Israel ... to fully grasp that [BDS] was not merely a piece of political theatre that could be ignored, but rather a new type of strategic threat.”
Moody’s credit rating agency has reported that BDS represents a potential threat to the Israeli economy, with a Rand Corporation study predicting that BDS could reduce Israel’s GDP by one to two percent over the next 10 years.
Companies buckle under pressure
Among the major corporations boycotting and divesting from Israel are Veolia, the French transnational company, PFA, the largest private pension and insurance fund in Denmark, and Norwegian insurance giant KLP.
French telecommunications company Orange has taken the first steps to end its licensing agreement with an Israeli company operating in illegal settlements after an intense BDS campaign in Egypt and France.
The list goes on. The Presbyterian Church in the US divested from three companies involved in the occupation while the Gates Foundation divested its entire stake of more than $180 million from security company G4S, which supplies equipment to Israeli prisons.
What’s next for BDS?
“As a decentralised human rights movement,” Barghouti explains, “[BDS] activists anywhere decide what to target and what kind of coalition they can build.”
“In the US, there are a number of strategic partners, such as the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace, Friends of Sabeel North America, etc. In Egypt, BDS Egypt is the most important entity doing campaigning.”
Barghouti explains, however, that, “authoritarian and repressive regimes are not the easiest to influence through grassroots campaigns [like BDS].”
His personal view is that any government’s “willful participation in Israel’s medieval siege of Gaza is not just a crime against the Palestinian people; it is a violation of [its] obligations under international law.”
In a year and a half, in June 2017, the Palestinian territories will have witnessed half a century of occupation. In 2020, the UN warns that Gaza, even if spared further military assaults, will be unlivable due to the current blockade and insufficient donor support.
So what do additional years of occupation and blockade hold for Gaza? “It will be unlivable,” answers Barghouti, “We cannot afford to wait.”