Neither an open-air prison nor a terrorist haven

An Israeli advocate of freedom of movement says the Gaza debate is distorted by flotilla crews and Israeli officials.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Gaza is rarely out of the news and, in the past week, it has become the focus of intensified diplomatic, military and media activity. From the potential opening of the Rafah crossing and the new Hamas-Fatah alliance to the impending arrival of a second ‘humanitarian flotilla’, Gaza is yet again being depicted as a place in need of taming or rescuing, depending on who you ask.

In an interview with al-Jazeera last Thursday, Egyptian foreign minister Nabil al-Arabi claimed that Cairo planned to open up the Rafah border crossing to Gaza within 10 days. The announcement followed Egypt’s successful brokerage of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, with calls for the formation of a single caretaker government and preparations to hold presidential and legislative elections within a year. Egypt’s shifting foreign policy, in the wake of the January uprisings, seems to have rattled the Israeli political establishment. Unsurprisingly, Israeli officials say the new border policy and the Hamas-Fatah deal will damage the chances of a peace agreement and will open up opportunities for Iranian influence in the Palestinian territories.

But as far as Gaza is concerned, these are not the only worries for Israel at the moment. Even the much-hyped Iron Dome anti-rocket system has not thwarted all of the missiles being fired from Gaza into the south of Israel. And Israel’s intensified diplomatic efforts to stave off the second Gaza aid flotilla have not paid off. As the review panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to investigate last year’s Gaza aid flotilla affair prepares to release its findings next week, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his inner cabinet to continue diplomatic efforts to prevent the upcoming flotilla from setting sail. He also instructed Israel’s security forces to prepare for the flotilla’s potential arrival, postponed from the end of May until after the Turkish elections in June.

Amid the intensified focus on the Gaza Strip, two familiar and contrasting images of this small piece of land have reappeared. On the one hand, it is depicted as a hotbed of terrorism, a place filled with a people intent on, and capable of, threatening democracy in the Middle East and beyond. On the other hand, it’s seen as an open-air prison, crammed with helpless people in need of shiploads of handouts.

According to Yoni Eshpar of Gisha, the Israeli legal centre for freedom of movement, such black-and-white characterisations ‘cripple the discussion of Gaza and prevent a well-informed debate on Israeli policy towards it’. Gisha offers legal assistance to Palestinians and works to protect the free movement of goods and people, especially in and out of Gaza. It’s an ambitious mission to say the least.

Eshpar told spiked that Gisha wants to shift the focus away from both the ‘binary images’ of Gaza, emphasising that the obstacles that its residents face are neither primarily terrorist nor humanitarian in character. Esphar insists that the Gaza Strip is not a humanitarian crisis zone. ‘There is no, and was never, any hunger crisis in Gaza. There is food on the shelves.’ The problem, he says, is that since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the blockade imposed following Hamas’ rise to power, there has been ‘a complete devastation of the local economy. Gazans lack purchasing power, they lack job opportunities, and around 80 per cent of the population is dependent on aid.’

In this sense, the flotilla mission is hardly a practical initiative – after all, a few shiploads of random goods will hardly solve the economic crisis in Gaza. But then its aim was never primarily to present a practical and realistic resolution to the restrictions on Palestinians’ freedoms. Instead, the ‘humanitarian boats’ that have been sailing to Gaza for the past three years are a continual publicity stunt (albeit one that went horribly wrong when 10 activists were killed during the Israel Defense Forces’ interception of the flotilla in May last year). The flotillas are only the more ambitious manifestation of the recent transformation of Palestine into the place for an assortment of Islamists, Western radicals, intellectuals, politicians and middle-class life-purpose seekers to get their kicks.

Regardless of whether the situation in Gaza fits the definition of a humanitarian crisis, things certainly look dire for a large section of the population there. But, on the ground, a range of individuals and organisations are working to affect change in a non-headline-grabbing way that is not about inflating egos but about addressing real needs and aspirations. For instance, since January this year, Israeli authorities have permitted over 1,000 Palestinian businessmen to travel into Israel. Gisha helps Palestinians, particularly Gazans, to secure such permits. The organisation also assists Gazans who want to travel to Israel or the West Bank for day labour, education and personal matters, dealing with the army bureaucracy and appealing to the Israeli courts when travel permits are denied.

So what does Esphar make of the flotilla? He tells me that ‘people have the right to demonstrate in the open seas and Israel, as the occupying power in Gaza, has the right to stop a flotilla from reaching its shores’. ‘But’, he adds, ‘I really wish the debate wouldn’t focus so much on the flotilla’.

Indeed, last year’s flotilla debacle and the international rage against Israel that ensued showed how a publicity stunt can manage to shift the spotlight on to a conflict without shining any light on the intricate facts on the ground. Instead, it merely reinforced the image of Gaza as a victim. At the same time, painting Israel as a ‘rogue state’, and as a global pariah in need of disciplining in the form of sanctions and even military intervention, served to give Western governments and institutions further impetus to set the agenda in the Middle East.

Between the Israeli government’s glossing over of the situation in Gaza (for instance, through a recent misleading claim that there is a construction boom there) and the flotilla passengers’ hyperbole (with talk of systematic ethnic cleansing, starvation and 1940s-style ghettoisation), it is worth pointing out that some people in the region are interested neither in budging from critiquing the policies that make life in Gaza harsh nor in engendering pity for the Palestinians.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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