A concerted effort is underway to render the lifting of the Gaza blockade conditional on Hamas’s disarmament.*
The international community needs to put an end to the threat posed by Hamas and other terrorist groups by halting rearmament and urgently pursuing disarmament in the Gaza strip. Secondly, the lives of the Palestinians living in Gaza must be improved, not simply through reconstruction but through concrete steps to lift the restrictions on the movement of people and goods, imposed not only by Israel but by Egypt, that stifle Gaza’s economic development and future prosperity.
Let me be unequivocal: the second of those objectives has to be utterly dependent on the first.
Worryingly, despite welcome push-back from Andy Slaughter MP and others,** neither shadow minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Gareth Thomas nor under-secretary of state for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Tobias Ellwood used their contributions to demand an immediate lifting of the blockade (although neither did they explicitly endorse its linkage to disarmament).
A few points bear recollection.
First, human rights organisations agree that the Gaza blockade constitutes illegal collective punishment and must be ended immediately:
The Israeli blockade of Gaza constitutes collective punishment and must be lifted immediately. (Amnesty International)
The closure [of Gaza] therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law…
The international community has to do its part to ensure that repeated appeals by States and international organisations to lift the closure are finally heeded. (International Committee of the Red Cross)
Human rights organisations explicitly reject, moreover, conditioning an end to the blockade on Palestinian disarmament:
Israel imposes the blockade on Gaza as a form of collective punishment… It is unlawful and should be lifted immediately and unconditionally i.e. it should not be contingent on any other possible processes, including demilitarisation. (Amnesty researcher Saleh Hijazi)
Humanitarian assistance and reconstruction must be provided based on need and cannot be contingent upon political developments or demands, including the demilitarization of Palestinian armed groups. (Oxfam)
Second, whereas under international law an occupying power is prohibited from forcibly suppressing a struggle for self-determination, international law does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force. The insistence that Palestinians unilaterally disarm in the face of a recalcitrant occupier amounts to a demand that they forego their internationally recognised right to self-determination – a demand that has no basis in international law.
Third, the blockade has comprehensively destroyed Gaza’s economy, perhaps irreversibly. Last year, GDP in Gaza declined by 15%. Unemployment is close to 50%. Reconstruction after last year’s Operation Protective Edge, which laid waste to the Strip’s civilian infrastructure and destroyed some 20,000 homes, has barely begun, with approximately 100,000 people still displaced. If it is legitimate to do this to occupied Gaza, whose population is comprised overwhelmingly of refugees, nearly half of them under 15, why is nobody calling for an economic blockade on Israel pending its disarmament? Amnesty International has repeatedly called for an arms embargo on both sides to the conflict, because both Israel and Palestinian armed groups have systematically violated human rights. Yet, so far from pressuring Israel to disarm, the UK is one of its dealers.
Finally, Israel’s blockade is not about security. Leave aside that the threat posed to Israel by Hamas ‘rockets’ is minimal. Hamas has repeatedly offered and adhered to ceasefires based on an end to the blockade, ceasefires Israel has repeatedly violated. Israel’s choice is not between rockets and the blockade, but between the blockade and periodic rocket fire or no blockade and a potentially viable Hamas government.*** It has consistently opted for the former. Thus, in 2008 Israel ended a ceasefire that had successfully reduced rockets from Gaza to near zero and launched an all-out assault on Gaza’s civilian population (‘Operation Cast Lead’). The reasoning was articulated by then-foreign minister and current leader of Israel’s ‘peace camp’ Tzipi Livni:
Hamas wants to gain legitimacy from the international community. Hamas wants to show that there is a place which is called the Gaza Strip, that this kind of an organisation – an extremist Islamic organisation that acts by terrorism and which is a designated terrorist organisation – can rule. And to make it seem a legitimate regime. So they want the crossings to be opened, not only for the sake of the population, but because this symbolically is how they can show that the Gaza Strip has become a kind of a small state, which is controlled by them…
[It is] important to keep Hamas from becoming a legitimate organisation.
Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and principal architect of the 2005 redeployment, summarised Israel’s approach to Gaza as follows:
It’s like a meeting with a dietician. We have to make them much thinner, but not enough to die.
The collective punishment of Gaza’s population is not incidental to Israel’s policy; it is Israel’s policy.
* A recent statement by 30 international aid agencies calling for more assistance for Gaza is in this respect troubling. It correctly notes that ‘Israel, as the occupying power, is the main duty bearer and must comply with its obligations under international law’. ‘In particular’, the statement continues, Israel ‘must fully lift the blockade, within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1860 (2009)’. UNSC 1860includes a provision calling upon states to provide ‘arrangements and guarantees in Gaza… to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition’; it does not demand an immediate and unconditional lifting of the blockade beyond ‘humanitarian assistance’.
** McCann was none too pleased with this dissent:
I am sick and tired of coming to debates in this House where we hear about people dying, about the blood, and about the disaster of buildings being destroyed and hospitals being destroyed. I am sick and tired of coming to debates like that.
Truly, the heart grieves.
*** Ha’aretz‘s Gideon Levy warns that Israel’s strangling of Gaza is creating the conditions for renewed conflict:
Israelis aren’t interested in Gaza’s fate… and soon it will be forced to remind them again of its disaster in the only way left to it, the rockets.