• Gaza - women in particular have been cut off from economic opprotunties (Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi)

Opinion

Raising the volume on EU demands about Gaza

18.06.12 @ 17:45

  1. By Sari Bashi

BRUSSELS - EU foreign ministers recently said that ending the Middle East conflict was a fundamental interest of the European Union.

If this is indeed the case, Europe should pay much more attention to what is happening in the Gaza Strip. Gaza's per capita GDP has declined by 19 percent since 1994, even as GDP per capita in the West Bank has risen by 34 percent.

Yet Gaza's sea coast, arable land and skilled labor have the potential to drive the entire Palestinian economy.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Hamas takeover of Gaza and its subsequent closure, as part of an Israeli policy to restrict movement of people and goods, supposedly to weaken the Hamas regime by crippling economic activity and making life in Gaza unpleasant.

European leaders protested loudly against this policy of "economic warfare" - as the Israeli government called it.

In the wake of the Turkish flotilla incident two years ago, the robust and unified voice of the EU was key to removing most restrictions on goods entering Gaza and opening the possibility for people to travel abroad via the border with Egypt.

Since June 2010, demands for greater access into and out of Gaza by European leaders have continued, but they are sporadic, polite, and - in my admittedly impatient Middle Eastern judgement - ineffective.

Palestinians in Gaza can now enjoy some access to the outside world but are still barred from moving to the other part of the Palestinian territory - the West Bank.

Israel is pursuing what it calls a "separation policy" designed to cut off Gaza from the West Bank and Israel.

This policy has repercussions beyond the Gaza Strip, as it severs the robust economic, academic, cultural, familial and institutional ties between the two parts of the Palestinian territory.

For example, farmers and manufacturers in Gaza cannot sell goods to Israel and the West Bank, even though those same goods transit through Israel and the West Bank en route to limited markets abroad.

It especially impacts women, who are less likely to have opportunities abroad if barred from the West Bank.

There are three main reasons why European leaders should raise the volume of their demands to Israel to let Palestinians live normal lives.

First, the EU's engagement in the Middle East is meant to strengthen shared values of democracy and human rights. Failing to insist on them undermines Europe's credibility.

Second, European taxpayers are willing to invest in the Middle East, but they want to invest in development that lasts, not perpetual humanitarian aid.

Without access to markets in Israel and the West Bank, people in Gaza will remain dependent on international assistance, primarily from Europe. Before June 2007, more than 85 percent of outgoing goods from Gaza were being sold in Israel and the West Bank. In contrast, low demand and high transport costs make sale abroad mostly irrelevant.

Without the ability to sell their products outside Gaza, the private sector cannot recover. That helps explain why more than 70 percent of Gaza residents receive international aid, nearly one-third of the workforce is unemployed, and 39 percent of those who have jobs work for the public sector, either the Hamas regime (reportedly funded primarily by Iran and Qatar) or the Palestinian Authority (funded primarily by Europe).

Last but not least, the restrictions are undermining the social, economic and human capital necessary for a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.

Let us be honest: there is no political horizon right now. The Palestinian factions remain divided, and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are going nowhere.

That has been the case for the last five years. But even as the political situation is stagnant, rapid changes are taking place within Palestinian society.

Economic ties between Gaza and the West Bank are disintegrating, institutions are pursuing divergent development paths, and social ties are straining to the point of tearing.

Certainly, the Palestinian factional split is exacerbating the separation. But the movement restrictions preceded the split by more than a decade, and we need not have a political breakthrough in order for them to be removed.

Right now, Israel can choose to allow the healthy development of Palestinian society by permitting movement of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, subject to individual security checks.

These facts do not elude European decision-makers. Just last month, EU foreign affairs ministers called for the "immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings" including for movement between Gaza and the West Bank.

The time has come to raise the volume of that demand.

The writer is the executive director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization promoting the right to freedom of movement in the Palestinian territory

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