Since the beginning of the second intifada, Israel has imposed harsh restrictions on freedom of movement to and from the Gaza Strip. As part of this policy, Israel has almost completely severed the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, causing Palestinian movement between the two areas to fall drastically. Entry of residents of the Gaza Strip to Israel for family visits or to enable spouses to live together is forbidden, and family visits to Gaza by Arab citizens and residents of Israel have been reduced to a minimum. Israel has made it difficult for Gaza residents to go abroad, and many have been denied exit altogether.
Import and export of goods is limited, and frequently stopped completely. In addition, only a small number of Gazans have been allowed to work in Israel, and tens of thousands of Gazans have lost their source of income. The restrictions on movement of goods and workers have caused a deep recession in Gaza, impaired Gazans' ability to work, and brought about a sharp decrease in the standard of living. The poverty rate has risen by more than 40 percent.
In September 2005, Israel completed implementation of its Disengagement Plan from the Gaza Strip, which included dismantling all the settlements there, evacuating the settlers to Israel and withdrawing the military. After the plan was fully implemented, Israel issued an order declaring the end of its military rule in the Gaza Strip, indicating it was no longer responsible for the safety and well-being of the population in Gaza.
The military withdrawal and the dismantling of the settlements led to considerably improved freedom of movement for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. However, even after the implementation of the Disengagement Plan, Israel retained control of the crossings from Gaza into Israel, with access to the West Bank, as well as Gaza’s air space and territorial waters. Also remaining at Israel’s discretion were the movement of persons and goods into and from Gaza. In practice, Israel continues to control important aspects of the lives of 1.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza, a million of whom UNRWA considers refugees. Although Rafah Crossing on the Egyptian border operated for seven months after the disengagement, in accord with an agreement reached by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, enabling movement to Egypt, it was closed after the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006.
In June 2007, after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Israel further tightened its control of the crossings and rarely allowed Palestinians to enter or leave Gaza, or to import or export goods. Three months after the Hamas takeover, in response to the continued firing of Qassam rockets at Israel, Israel’s security cabinet declared the Gaza Strip a hostile entity and adopted collective punitive measures, including cutting back the electricity and fuel supply to Gaza.
Israel’s siege on Gaza has led to substantially reduced availability of basic supplies and medicines and a sharp rise in prices. Most factories and hundreds of businesses have closed. In 2009, there were as many as 140,000 unemployed in the Gaza Strip, some 40 percent of its workforce.
On 20 June 2010, in view of international pressure on Israel for its takeover of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, Israel’s security cabinet decided to ease restrictions on import into Gaza. This measure included expanding the list of goods permitted into Gaza and permission to bring in certain quantities of construction materials. The cabinet decision did not, however, alter the policy regarding export from Gaza. Only six months later would the Israeli government announce it would slightly lift export restrictions, permitting agricultural, furniture and textile exports.
In May 2011, Egypt announced it would open Rafah Crossing to Palestinians, permanently and officially. As of December 2011, passage is relatively free, subject to Egyptian restrictions. Goods, however, may not be transported through the crossing.
After the implementation of the Disengagement Plan, some Palestinian groups in Gaza carried on firing rockets and mortars at Israeli communities near the Green Line, in contravention of international humanitarian law, which prohibits intentionally targeting civilians. Moreover, rockets and the shells are imprecise weapons, rendering them illegal even if targeting military objectives. In addition, Palestinians often launch the rockets from areas heavily populated by civilians, endangering them. Between the time the implementation of the Disengagement Plan in Gaza was completed on 11 September 2005 and Operation Pillar of Defense began on 14 November 2012, rockets and mortars fired by Palestinians killed thirteen Israeli civilians, one foreign civilian and two soldiers (one inside the Gaza Strip). In addition, an Israeli minor and a soldier were killed by an anti-aircraft missile.
For its part, Israel used a variety of military means at its disposal, including artillery fire at what the Israeli military classified as “Qassam launching areas”. It designated areas near the border between Gaza and Israel “death zones,” imposing open-fire regulations that permit firing at Palestinians found in those zones even if they pose no mortal danger. In addition, Israel continued carrying out targeted killings of Palestinians allegedly involved in attacks against Israel. Targeted killings have also resulted in the deaths of many uninvolved bystanders. According to B’Tselem’s figures, since the implementation of the Disengagement Plan, Israel has killed 155 Palestinians in targeted-killing operations, including 87 Palestinian who were the actual target and 68 bystanders (including 34 minors). Since the disengagement, the Israeli military has conducted several operations in the Gaza Strip, including bombing civilian infrastructure and ground-force incursions into heavily populated areas.
Over the course of Israeli military operations from the disengagement un to 26 December 2008, at least 516 Palestinians who did not take part in the hostilities were killed. This number includes 192 minors, 49 women, and 25 men over 50.
On 27 December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its most extensive operation in Gaza. The operation, which ended on 18 January 2009, resulted in unparalleled harm to the civilian Palestinian population: 1,391 Palestinians were killed, including at least 759 civilians who did not take part in the hostilities; thousands were wounded. Israel also extensively damaged buildings and infrastructure, so that electric, water, and sewage facilities, which were on the verge of collapse even before the campaign, ceased functioning altogether. According to UN figures, Israel destroyed over 3,500 residences, rendering tens of thousands homeless. During the operation, Palestinians fired rockets and mortar shells at Israel, with the declared purpose of striking Israeli civilians. These attacks killed three Israeli civilians and one member of the Israeli security forces, and wounded dozens. Nine soldiers were killed within the Gaza Strip, four by friendly fire. More than 100 soldiers were wounded, one critically and 20 moderately to seriously.
On 14 November 2012 Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip. According to the IDF Spokesperson, over the course of the eight days of the operation, the Israeli military attacked approximately 1,500 targets, including underground rocket launchers, arms-smuggling tunnels and weapons storage facilities. According to B’Tselem’s figures for the operation, the Israeli military killed 167 Palestinians, including at least 87 who did not take part in the hostilities, 31 of whom were minors. According to data from Israel Security Agency, Palestinians launched 1,667 rockets from the Gaza Strip over the course of Operation Pillar of Defense, killing four Israeli civilians and two members of the Israeli security services. The operation ended on 21 November 2012, when Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire.
Contrary to Israel’s contention that implementation of the Disengagement Plan would end its responsibility for Gaza’s population, international law imposes certain obligations on Israel, including the upholding of the rights of the local residents in matters of which it retained control. These obligations are based both on the extent of actual control over major facets of the residents’ lives that Israel retained even after disengagement as well as from the practically complete dependence of Gaza’s economy on Israel’s, a consequence of the prolonged occupation.
In times of armed conflict in the Gaza Strip, Israel is further bound by the provisions of international humanitarian law (IHL). Two fundamental IHL principles – namely, distinction and proportionality – categorically prohibit intentional attacks against civilians, and state that even when an attack target a military objective, the projected harm to civilians must not be excessive in comparison to the direct military advantage expected. In addition, during armed conflict, Israel must provide special protection to certain groups, including children, the sick and the wounded. It must allow medicines and essential foodstuffs to reach the area freely and enable medical personnel to treat the sick and wounded.