Break Hamas Stranglehold on Gaza

Earlier this week I visited one of the communities on the Gaza periphery, Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Notwithstanding the optimism and strength of the residents, it felt a long way from normal.

Ten metre high concrete blast walls had been erected around the kindergarten. Many of the kibbutz families were yet to return, too fearful and uncertain about the future. To the residents, the current calm seemed tentative and fragile. Throughout the south, the mood seems much the same.

The fifty day conflict with Gaza took a heavy toll on both sides. But the current ceasefire agreement is fragile. Unless the current status quo begins to change, the prospect of rocket fire resuming towards Israel is all too real.

All through the conflict, Israel kept oil and cooking gas and other essentials moving through Kerem Shalom, and kept the crossing at Erez open.

Following the ceasefire, Israel has helped alleviate humanitarian needs in Gaza. The fishing zone for Gazans has been expanded from three to six nautical miles.

The goods crossing at Kerem Shalom is moving four hundred truckloads of goods across the border each day. From sacks of flour to cartons of nappies, from Australian cattle and cooking gas to roofing and watermelon seeds – I saw it all moving into Gaza when I visited Kerem Shalom earlier this week.

These are positive first steps, but more is now needed.

That is why the agreement announced earlier this week between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations to facilitate the reconstruction and economic recovery of Gaza is such a welcome development.

Israel has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed in any new cross-border mechanism.

No-one in the international community will tolerate seeing sacks of cement being used to rebuild the terror attack tunnels, or discovering that materials intended for reconstruction have been diverted to rocket factories.

But provided we can find a way to protect Israel’s security concerns, improving economic conditions for ordinary Gazans is a goal Israel and the international community can agree upon.

Gaza’s reconstruction needs are real and significant. Just as importantly, however, economic opportunities for Gazans to earn a living on their own behalf must improve. Aid is no substitute for a strong private sector.

When I visited Gaza several months ago, I was shocked by the stranglehold that Hamas exercised over all forms of economic activity.

If people had a job, they either worked for Hamas or were employed by an aid agency.

Much of the population subsisted on welfare and handouts. The economy was closed and stagnant.

The traditional merchant families of Gaza were marginalised. Generating wealth, adding value or any sort of entrepreneurialism was nigh impossible. Rent-seeking was rife. It was a sad picture of a place renowned throughout history as one of merchants and traders.

A new cross-border mechanism with robust monitoring and verification could change this equation.

If goods can move more freely in and out of Gaza, if exports can resume, if people have outlets for trade and entrepreneurialism, if a private sector can emerge, then the life and the politics of Gaza can be transformed.

Gazan strawberry and carnation growers could sell their goods into the West Bank, where incomes are three times as high.

Palestinians in the West Bank could become a big source of tourists for Gaza, taking their children on beach holidays.

This will not happen overnight, but if we can break Hamas’ stranglehold on the Gazan economy, then their political dominance will soon come under challenge.

The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the main donor coordination mechanism for the Palestinian people, is meeting in New York next week.

This provides the opportunity to mobilise the international community behind this effort. Australia and others are keen to support a new cross-border mechanism agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and to help flesh out the detail.

In the absence of any sort of accountable or responsible actor on the Gazan side, four hundred truckloads of goods are moving across Israel’s border with Gaza each day.

If the right safeguards and mechanisms are put in place, this figure could be several multiples higher, and goods and people could move both ways.

This is an outcome that would benefit both the security of Israel and the people of Gaza.

Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth and YNet News (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4573537,00.html) in Sep 2014

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