The siege on the Gaza Strip: 1.5 million people imprisoned

Published: 
31 May 2010

Since June 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Israel has imposed a tight blockade on the area. According to Israeli officials, the objective of the siege is to bring down the Hamas government and lead to the release of Gilad Shalit. The siege thus constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population, and as such it is unlawful.

Even after the withdrawal, Israel controls the Gaza Strip

Although Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip in September 2005, it continues to maintain complete control of the area's airspace and territorial waters, and of most of the land crossings. As a result, Gaza residents wishing to leave the area must first obtain a permit from Israel. Since the siege began, Israel has only granted permits in rare cases that it classifies as “humanitarian.” The policy also applies to residents who merely wish to cross through Israel in order to reach the West Bank.

Departure from the Gaza Strip via Rafah Crossing, for which Egypt is responsible, is also limited; Egypt only opens the crossing in exceptional cases. Even if Egypt is able to open the crossing more often, this does not eliminate Israel's responsibility toward the residents of the Gaza Strip, including ill persons who are unable to obtain necessary treatment in the area.

Harsh restrictions on imports

Under agreements between Israel and Egypt, the Gaza Strip's foreign trade must be conducted through Israel. The quantity of goods that Israel allows into the area is less than one-quarter the quantity that entered prior to the siege, and far below the amount required for the population's needs. The range of goods that Israel allows in is also much smaller: 150 types of goods compared with 4,000 before the siege. Israel refuses to publish the list of products permitted into the Gaza Strip, or the rules used in determining the list. The NGO Gisha filed an action in the Administrative Court demanding this information. In refusing the demand, the state argued that providing this information would harm state security and Israel's foreign relations. The court has not yet given its decision.

Difficulties in rebuilding destroyed and damaged buildings

Israel prohibits the importing of building materials, including iron and cement. The prohibition has remained in place even after Operation Cast Lead, during which 3,500 houses were completely destroyed, thousands more damaged, and extensive harm caused to infrastructures. Israel's prohibition is preventing the reconstruction of thousands of buildings destroyed during the operation.

Frequent blackouts, sewage flowing into the sea

The siege also severely impairs the supply of electricity in the Gaza Strip. Since September 2007, when Israel declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” following the firing of Qassam rockets, Israel has cut reduced the supply of industrial fuel, which is needed to operate the power station in Gaza. Following a petition filed by the NGOs Gisha and Adalah, the state agreed to supply some 63 percent of the fuel needed to meet all the residents' needs. In practice, however, it provides less than this quantity. As a result of Israel's policy, 98 percent of Gaza residents suffer from planned blackouts lasting up to eight or ten hours a day. The other two percent of the population do not receive any electricity at all, in part due to the shortage of spare parts, which makes it impossible to repair infrastructure, or due to the proximity of their homes to the border with Israel.

The frequent power cuts and shortage of spare parts prevent the proper operation of wells and desalination plants. When combined with excessive pumping over the years, the result is that the water in the Gaza Strip is of poor quality. At the end of 2009, 93 percent of the wells were found to be polluted with high quantities of chloride and nitrates, far in excess of the World Health Organization's recommended levels. The water supply is defective, and thousands of residents are not even connected to the water grid. Waste treatment has also been affected: every day, some 100,000 cubic meters of untreated, or partially untreated, wastewater flow into the sea.

Almost complete prohibition on exports

Prior to the siege, seventy trucks with goods intended for export, such as furniture, clothes, and agricultural produce, left the Gaza Strip daily. Israel currently prohibits almost all exports. From the beginning of the siege to the end of April 2010, Israel has only allowed the export of strawberries and flowers intended for the European market in isolated cases.

Serious harm to the agriculture and fishing sectors

Agriculture has been hit hard by the siege and thousands of persons have lost their source of livelihood. This is due, in part, to the prohibition on the entry of basic items such as pesticides and spare parts for irrigation systems, as well as the prohibition on exports. In addition, farmers in areas near the Israeli border are unable to reach their land because Israel has declared extensive sections of land a “security strip” to which access is forbidden or restricted. Moreover, Israel has adopted open-fire regulations that permit the shooting of any person who enters these areas, even if the person does not pose any danger. Israel has also restricted the area in which fishing is allowed; since Operation Cast Lead, fishermen are not allowed to go more than three nautical miles from the coast. The waters within this range yield a meager supply of fish, and fishermen find it difficult to make a living and to meet the demand for fish.

The result - economic collapse and severe poverty

Israel's policy has led to economic collapse in Gaza. The prohibition on bringing in raw materials and on exports has led to the closing of 95 percent of the factories and workshops in the area. Tens of thousands of persons have lost their livelihood, and unemployment now exceeds 40 percent. As a result, more than 70 percent of the population depends on aid from international organizations to obtain food. In 2007, humanitarian aid amounted to 3 percent of imports; by 2009, this figure had risen to 26 percent.

The tunnels economy

As a result of the siege policy, an economy has developed in recent years based on tunnels between the southern Gaza Strip and Rafah, Egypt. Large quantities of goods have been imported through these tunnels. The Hamas government supervises the functioning of the tunnels and collects taxes from the operators. In addition to necessities, Palestinians also smuggle in weapons, including rockets. Following the expansion of tunnel activity, it was reported in 2008 that various products were once again available in the markets, and that prices had fallen somewhat due to increased supply. Nevertheless, the use of tunnels for this purpose is not a proper substitute for a stable local economy.

Holding Gilad Shalit as a hostage - a grave breach

The soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted in June 2006, and has been held since then in an unknown location under unknown conditions. His captors have made it clear that he is being held as a hostage and are demanding the release of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. The abductors have not allowed representatives of the International Red Cross, or any other international body, to visit him. Over the year, Hamas published a video tape showing Shalit. Other than that, as far as B'Tselem knows, no information has been provided about his physical or mental health.

Shalit is a hostage due to the circumstances in which he was seized and the manner in which he is being held. International humanitarian law absolutely forbids the taking and holding of a person by force for the purpose of pressuring the adversary to comply with certain demands, while threatening to harm the person if the demands are not met. The taking of hostages is considered a war crime, for which all the persons involved bear personal criminal liability.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza bears an obligation to release Shalit immediately and unconditionally. Pending his release, his captors must treat him humanely and enable representatives of the ICRC to visit him.