Gaza protests highlight humanitarian crisis and lack of political progress to peace

Palestinian protesters run during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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Editor's note:

In this Q&A, Beverley Milton-Edwards, says that the recent protests in Gaza—in which over a dozen Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces—mark a tipping point as the Gaza Strip is on the brink of collapse and peace remains elusive.

Why are Gazans protesting?

March 30 was Land Day. On this date, Palestinians commemorate the 1976 protests against the Israeli government’s seizure of their lands, as well as the killing of six Arab Israelis who died during those same demonstrations. Last week, thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began organizing a series of sit-ins and demonstrations that will lead up to May 15, the 70th anniversary of what Palestinian call al-Nakba (The Catastrophe). This is when they reflect on the displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians. From 1947-48, as Israelis fought for their new state, Palestinians were either forced to leave or fled their homes as a result of the conflict, which included mass atrocities against the civilian population such as the massacre at Deir Yassin. Indeed, May 15 is also a red-letter day for Israel as it marks Independence Day. The majority of Gaza’s nearly two million residents are those original refugees and their descendants from villages, towns, and lands in Israel. They endure a precarious and stateless life in refugee camps and over-crowded urban neighborhoods. This explains the particular importance of the commemoration of these historic events, as they endure and shape the lives of Palestinians in the present day. 

For more than a decade, the life of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has also been deeply impacted by the effects of an Israeli-imposed blockade on Gaza’s coast and border crossings to Israel. The protests, then, also highlight what the United Nations (U.N.) warned in January 2018; a growing humanitarian crisis has brought the area to the brink of collapse. Many in the international community are unaware of the urgent humanitarian crisis that has brought the Gaza Strip to a dire tipping point.

Why is there a humanitarian crisis?

In 2006, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas won the majority vote in Palestinian legislative elections. These results were declared free and fair by the international community. However, the international community’s response to the Hamas victory was to support Israel’s imposition of a blockade on the entire population of the Gaza Strip and to boycott Hamas. For more than a decade Israel has maintained what Palestinians refer to as a siege on Gaza’s entire population. Moreover, Palestinians can no longer easily leave Gaza through Israel. Many refer to Gaza as simply a large, open-air prison with Israel cast as its jailor.

Israel’s publicly stated aim in enforcing (to one degree or another) these restrictions is to severely circumscribe the threat that Hamas poses to them. Not only is this threat manifest in Hamas attempts to use Gaza as a launch-pad for violent attacks on Israel, but also in the political support that the majority of Gaza’s Palestinian inhabitants offered to the movement when they voted for it in 2006.

Hence, for more than 10 years Israel has imposed severe restrictions on food, water, electricity, and other basic commodities entering Gaza from its crossing points. According to systematic assessments conducted by international humanitarian organizations, the whole of Gaza’s civilian population has progressively suffered. International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank reports show that Gaza’s economy has been decimated. Basic infrastructure and services such as education and healthcare, electricity supplies, and sanitation are also adversely affected. The U.N. reports that 90% of Gaza’s drinking water is not fit for human consumption, and more than 60% of the population is dependent on humanitarian aid. Hamas’s political opponents in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank also acted against Gaza in March 2017, adding to the deterioration of the situation. Like Israel a decade before them, the PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, were hoping to weaken and defeat their opponents in Hamas.

Overall, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip threatens Palestinian stability and unity. It is also becoming a wider strategic challenge to Israel, located along the northern and eastern perimeters of Gaza, as well as Egypt, situated along the southern border.

Can the humanitarian crisis be solved?

Humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies have been working assiduously to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis. Israel has played its part in easing some restrictions and, even recently, has actively advocated for emergency funding meetings to support the Gaza Strip. Yet other policies or actions, including three major military Israeli assaults on Gaza over the last decade; the reconstruction challenge; the imposition of stringent border controls by Egypt; the cut in U.S. funding to the U.N. agency that has to care for registered Palestinian refugees, UNRWA; and PA-imposed restrictions considerably undermine efforts to ease the blockade.

The good news is that this catastrophe in waiting is avoidable. Border restrictions can be eased; fuel can be supplied for hospitals to run and sewage to be processed; and factories can be rebuilt to revive a destroyed economy. Israel, the PA, and other actors can effect change that contributes to the humanitarian effort and better stabilizes Gaza.

What is the future for peace in the Gaza Strip?

Humanitarian support and peacemaking in the Gaza Strip, however, also require a significant political effort in terms of confidence-building measures that recognize the realities and challenges on the ground. This includes the task of achieving Palestinian reconciliation and finding a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

One reality is Hamas. In 2017, former British Prime Minister and Envoy to the Quartet of the Middle East Peace Process Tony Blair admitted he had been wrong in supporting the boycott of Hamas and imposing the blockade. Israel’s objective of weakening and defeating Hamas was accepted by much of the international community, as well as the PA. However this position was accompanied by an understanding that Israel would pursue peace with the PA and President Abbas, a scenario which more than a decade later never came to fruition.

In March 2018 President Trump’s son-in-law and envoy to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process Jared Kushner set-up a mission to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Despite reports of specific proposals to ease the situation in Gaza, such efforts are likely to remain short-sighted and lack the substance required to create long-term stability. The future for peace in the Gaza Strip can only be achieved through efforts to conclude a just and lasting peace formula based on serious negotiations with all parties to the conflict. Short-termism simply will not work.