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Top 10 Reasons for Reassessing the Gaza Blockade Strategy

In June 2007, as part of an effort to pressure Hamas and force it out of power, Israel clamped a tight blockade on Gaza.  The blockade blocks the free movement of all goods and people into and out of the Gaza Strip.  This blockade is carried out by Israel along its border with the Gaza Strip and along the shores of Gaza, and by Egypt, along its border with the Strip. The blockade has continued through the past three years, condoned and supported by the United States and the international community.

(1) The blockade is ineffective as a security measure.

The primary rationale for the blockade has always been Israeli security - the legitimate Israeli desire to stop Gaza militants getting their hands on more weapons.  But it hasn't worked. The blockade didn't bring about an end to rocket attacks. To the contrary, rocket attacks escalated following the implementation of this policy, culminating in the 2008-2009 Gaza War.  And even if it can be argued that the blockade is hindering the flow of weapons into Gaza, it is clearly is not stopping this flow: with the flourishing tunnel traffic between Gaza and Egypt that has developed since the blockade was established, today Israel military experts believe that Hamas continues to obtain weapons with little difficulty.

(2) The blockade is ineffective as an anti-Hamas tactic.

The other rationale for the blockade was Israel's goal of ousting Hamas from power.  Here again, the blockade hasn't worked.  To the contrary, it has played into Hamas's hands.  Rather than the hoped-for groundswell of popular Palestinian action against Hamas' government, the blockade has helped Hamas strengthen its hold on Gaza.  Gaza has turned into a society that is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, with poverty rates are so high that the UN estimates that more than 60% of households are now food insecure. And because of the blockade, the local population blames Israel, not Hamas, for this.  

(3) The blockade is ineffective as a means of freeing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The government of Israel has the right - indeed, the obligation - to take measures to free its captured soldier Gilad Shalit. However, the blockade has clearly failed to achieve this goal.  Worse yet, the blockade has more likely undermined the effort to free Shalit.  Hamas used Israeli unwillingness to end the blockade as a pretext for refusing to free Shalit, after adding lifting the blockade to its list of demands - in addition to the release of hundreds of prisoners held by Israel - in exchange for releasing him.  Meanwhile international support for Israel's legitimate grievance over the imprisonment of Shalit diluted by ever-growing concerns over the blockade's impact on the population of Gaza, including children, women, the sick, and the elderly.

(4) The blockade is hurting the entire population of Gaza.

While Gazans are not dying of starvation or epidemics, there is a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. For the past three years, Israel has prevented the entry of all but a trickle of humanitarian goods into Gaza. Additional goods enter via hundreds of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. While it is true that there are additional quantities of food entering Gaza, residents don't have money to buy it, because Israel blocks the passage of goods that could be used for economic activity, including raw materials, construction materials, and export of finished products. More than 80% of Gaza residents are dependent on cash assistance from international and/or Islamic charities in order to survive, and a similar percentage are dependent on food assistance.

Ninety-percent of Gaza's factories have closed or are operating at 10% or less capacity. Construction projects, including those designed to repair the damage from the 2008-2009 military operation, are halted, except for private actors who use construction materials purchased from the tunnels and taxed by Hamas. Unemployment in Gaza hovers at around 40%. A combination of supply restrictions imposed by Israel and financial disputes between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have restricted the supply of fuel needed to produce electricity, forcing power outages of approximately 8 hours per day throughout the Gaza Strip.

More than 90% of the water is unsuitable for drinking by World Heath Organization standards and must be treated. Patients requiring medical care not available in Gaza face delays and sometimes refusals to permit the referral to hospitals in Israel, the West Bank, or third countries. Medical students are not permitted to leave Gaza to obtain training or studies in the West Bank, and medical personnel are often prevented from attending training opportunities abroad, making it difficult to improve the standard of care.

The situation in Gaza has been called a crisis of dignity. One and a half million people are being kept on "life support" - prevented from engaging in dignified, productive work via a policy Israel characterizes as "economic warfare" designed to pressure the Hamas regime. Human rights organizations characterize it as collective punishment, because civilians are being punished for acts they did not commit.

Such a policy is fundamentally wrong and ultimately counterproductive. It is equally wrong and counterproductive for the U.S. to condone such actions.  The dramatic deterioration in the health and welfare of civilians in Gaza in recent years represents an entirely man-made, and entirely avoidable, humanitarian nightmare.  This nightmare must end and the situation must be reversed - not as a concession to Hamas, but because it is the right thing to do, both morally and strategically.

(5) The blockade is actually strengthening Hamas.

 As a result of the blockade, Gaza's civilians are suffering and its independent merchant class has been wiped out, while Hamas' hold over Gaza has been strengthened through the control of the smuggling tunnels.  Outside of UN aid and the limited aid that Israel permits to pass through its crossing points, nearly all regular goods for Gaza must pass through Hamas-controlled tunnels, which today are the backbone of Gaza's pseudo-economy.   Today Hamas is even taxing the goods that come through these routes, meaning that the blockade has indirectly become a source of income for the Hamas government.

(6) The blockade has helped wipe out moderate opposition to Hamas within Gaza.

As a result of the blockade, Gaza's moderate middle class - the people who in the past traded with Israel and had regular relations with Israelis - has been wiped out politically and economically.  While one rationale for the blockade was that it would cause the people to rise up against Hamas and in favor of the kind of more moderate leadership that exists in the West Bank, instead today the only real opposition to Hamas comes from foreign-inspired and foreign-funded Islamists who oppose Hamas for being too moderate.

(7) The blockade undermines the domestic legitimacy of Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.

Some argue that lifting the blockade would deal a blow to the Fatah-run PA and its leaders, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  This argument is facile.  

Abbas and Fayyad continue to call for an end to the blockade.  For the sake of their own credibility as well as for their claim to lead all the Palestinian people (not just the West Bank) Abbas and Fayyad cannot sit by quietly and acquiesce to a situation in which more than a million Palestinians suffer.  Similarly, they know that the Gaza blockade is actually strengthening Hamas' hold on Gaza, while diminishing the influence of those Gazans who would traditionally have represented their own power base.  

(8) The blockade is a strategic liability for Israel.

The blockade is generating friction between Israel and its allies who are finding it difficult to defend the policy to their own citizens.  Some of these allies have assisted Israel by financing UN aid to keep Gaza afloat.  

Israel's relations with Egypt are also being strained. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is a cornerstone of Israeli security policy. But Egypt has its own vital security interests in the Sinai-Gaza border - interests that it sees being trampled by Israel as the blockade continues.

The blockade negatively impacts the image of Israel internationally, providing ready ammunition for anti-Israel sentiment and campaigns and fueling efforts to charge Israeli officials in foreign courts with violating the Geneva Convention.  Every student who cannot exit Gaza to study, every patient who cannot exit Gaza for medical care, every bride in the West Bank who is separated from her groom in Gaza due to Israel's refusal to permit travel between the West Bank and Gaza, every West Bank resident who is pointlessly deported to Gaza for having failed to change his or her address to the West Bank before 2000, when Israel stopped accepting changes to the Palestinian registry - each of these is one more self-inflicted Israeli wound in the propaganda battle over Israel's legitimacy.

Speaking a week before the Gaza flotilla debacle, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor reportedly said: "We can't win on this one in terms of PR.  If we let them throw egg at us, we appear stupid with egg on our face. If we try to prevent them by force, we appear as brutes."

(9) The blockade undermines Israel's legitimate claims to self-defense.

Hamas is a terrorist organization that has carried out horrific attacks on Israel. It refuses to clearly and unequivocally accept Israel's right to exist.   Israel has serious and understandable concerns about the dangers posed by Hamas in Gaza, including the danger posed by the importation of weapons to Gaza and the firing of weapons from Gaza into Israel.   

The blockade, however, is not an appropriate answer to these concerns, and the maintenance of the blockade has become a burden and a liability for Israel.  Today Israeli military might is being used - whether in the context of the Gaza War or in the context of efforts to stop ships at sea  - to preserve a blockade that itself has proven to be ineffective and increasingly difficult to defend morally.

Maintaining a blockade that is ineffective, and presenting it as an existential matter of self-defense, undermines Israel's claim that it is acting in self-defense. The international reaction to the recent Gaza flotilla debacle underscores this point, with few - even among defenders of Israel - viewing Israel's actions as a response to a credible threat to the homefront.  The international backlash to the 2008-2009 Gaza War offers a further example: while it was true that Israel attacked after facing months of rocket attacks from Gaza, the war was almost universally understood in the context of the years of misery imposed on Gaza by Israel's blockade.

Israel lives in a tough neighborhood and there is a very real possibility that Israel will have to act in its legitimate self-defense in the future.  Unfortunately, conflating self-defense with defense of a blockade that is increasingly ineffective and morally indefensible risks undermining Israel's position on the international arena.  Israel can't afford to be perceived as not being credible in what it asserts as self-defense.  

(10) The continued maintenance of the blockade makes tragedies inevitable.

The roots of this week's disaster lie not in the actions of the flotilla's participants or the actions of the Israeli government. The roots of this disaster lie in the failure of the policy, initiated by Israel after Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 (and supported by the international community), to block the free movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza.

The Gaza blockade is untenable and increasingly indefensible given the humanitarian crisis that it has created, and given its contribution to Israel's increasing international isolation. An effective ban on imports and smuggling of arms into Gaza - both by land and by sea - can be established and sustained through an international regime without subjecting the entire population to misery, and without Israel adopting policies that are clear strategic liabilities.  

The roots of this crisis - the blockade - cry out for serious attention, even before considering the tremendous public relations nightmare that the current situation poses for Israel.  Because if we don't deal with the roots of this crisis, it is only a matter of time before Israel will face another challenge to the blockade, and will be faced with another set of bad choices dictated by what is at heart a misguided and faulty strategy.