The Gates of Gaza

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Ephron

Goods can come in now, Israel says. But they still can't go out, which is stifling the Gazan economy.

Jawad Oda doesn't think much of Israel's decision last month to ease its siege of the Gaza Strip. The 47-year-old Palestinian owns a textile factory in Gaza City, which, in better days, had notched reasonable profits exporting most of its merchandise to Israel and the West Bank. Since 2007, the year Hamas seized control of Gaza and Israel imposed the blockade, Oda has laid off 12 of his 13 employees and operated his factory at just 10 percent of capacity. Now, for the first time in three years, he might be able once again to import the raw materials he needs from Israel, including cloth and threads. But even if he gets production back up to what it was, he has no viable way of getting his goods out of Gaza. "What's the point of manufacturing goods again if I can't get them to the buyers?" he says.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to Washington this week, he'll show President Obama the list of goods Israel had previously banned from Gaza but is now allowing--among them, curiously, cilantro and avocados. What he won't tell him is that relaxing the ban on imports means little for most Gazans. While the restriction has posed a hardship, smugglers have been able to deliver many prohibited items through a network of tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt. The real impact of the siege has been on Gaza's export market, which has all but collapsed since 2007--and with it much of the economy. The Israeli policy shift does not address exports at all.

The numbers tell the story. When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and dismantled its settlements there, an American-mediated agreement allowed Palestinians to export up to 450 truckloads of goods a day from Gaza. But crossing points were targeted by Palestinian bombers on more than one occasion, and so for security reasons Israel waved through only about 70 trucks per day before the siege was imposed. Since June 2007, when Israel imposed its blockade, the total number of trucks carrying goods out of Gaza has been less than 300, according to the Israeli rights group Gisha, which collects data on Gaza's besieged economy. In other words, in three years Gazans have been allowed to send out an amount equivalent to just four days of exports under the de facto pre-siege number--which itself was far less than originally envisioned. As a result, according to estimates by the Palestinian Federation of Industries, more than 90 percent of Gaza's factories have closed down or are working at minimum capacity, a statistic that says far more about the grim situation in Gaza than the commonly cited data on banned goods.

The near-total export ban also tells us something about Israeli motives: the blockade is not aimed primarily at preventing weapons from reaching Gaza, as Netanyahu has portrayed it, but rather at debilitating Gaza's economy in order to undermine the popularity of Hamas. (When asked about the export ban, Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would "continue to liberalize our policy concerning the flow of goods while maintaining the necessary security envelope.") Certainly, the group is a fair target for Israel. Hamas regularly fires rockets at the Jewish state and has been holding the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive for four years without allowing visits by the Red Cross. But in reality, the siege has strengthened Hamas. It has shifted the bulk of commercial activity from official crossing points between Gaza and Israel--where the merchandise was tightly controlled and the tax revenue went to the Palestinian Authority--to the tunnels burrowed illegally between Gaza and Egypt, where anything goes. …