In June 2007, following an internal conflict between Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip that lasted for several weeks, Hamas took control of the security apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority in the area. Israel responded by closing its border crossings with the Gaza Strip and strengthening its control, with the result that it is currently virtually impossible to enter or leave the area, or to import or export goods.
The passenger crossing at Erez was completely closed during the first month of the siege. Following a petition filed in the High Court of Justice by Gisha and Physicians for Human Rights, and rejected by the court, Israel stated it would only permit passengers to cross as a “humanitarian gesture.” Over the past two years, however, Israel has even prevented persons from crossing in obvious humanitarian cases, such as families wanting to meet with their loved ones or persons requiring urgent medical treatment not available in the Gaza Strip. This policy is especially grave given the poor condition of the medical system in the area prior to the siege, due to the protracted lack of investment in infrastructure and in training of physicians and medical personnel. During the siege, the health system has further deteriorated due to the lack of medical equipment, medicines, and rescue vehicles, and because of the frequent, prolonged power blackouts.
Rafah Crossing, on Gaza’s border with Egypt, was also closed in June 2007 and has remained closed, for the most part. The exceptions are cases in which Egypt, in coordination with Hamas, opens the crossing for limited, irregular periods of time that are insufficient to meet the needs of the local population.
On 19 September 2007, the Israeli security cabinet classified the Gaza Strip as a “hostile entity.” Israel maintains that this decision enables it to take various punitive measures against residents of the area in response to the firing of Qassam rockets, including the restriction of the electricity and fuel that Israel supplies to the Gaza Strip.
In October 2007, Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, B'Tselem among them, petitioned the High Court against the cut in electricity and fuel supplies. The petitioners argued that the cut would cause great humanitarian harm, even to the point of endangering human life. In late 2008, the court rejected the petition, allowing the cut in electricity and fuel. The court accepted the state’s argument that some of the fuel is used by terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip for various purposes, and that reducing supply of that fuel will harm the terrorist infrastructure. The court also accepted the state’s argument that the basic humanitarian needs of Gaza residents will not be harmed by the cut.
Since then, Israel has allowed the entry of up to 63 percent of the amount of industrial fuel needed to operate the power plant in the Gaza Strip. During a four-month period starting in November 2008, Israel prohibited any industrial fuel from entering. The industrial fuel is intended solely for the power plant and is funded by the European Union. In addition, Israel has reduced the quantities of gasoline, diesel fuel, and cooking gas entering the Gaza Strip.
The fuel shortage has a direct effect on the ability to produce electricity in the Gaza Strip and on the water and sewage systems, which require fuel to operate the pumps. To cope with the permanent shortage, the Gaza Electric Distribution Company is obliged to halt the power supply to various parts of the Gaza Strip for several hours a day. Israel’s prohibition on the entry of goods to the area, including spare parts for the electricity system, causes additional malfunctions and deficiencies./>/>/>
Other measures have led to the deterioration of the economy, which was in extremely poor condition even before the siege. Israel has unilaterally reduced the quantity of goods permitted to enter the Gaza Strip and imposed a general prohibition on exports.
According to UN figures, during the two years following the imposition of the siege, an average of 112 containers have entered the Gaza Strip each day from Israel [a container is a truck hauling one freight compartment], compared with a daily average of 583 containers prior to the siege. Since Operation Cast Lead, the number of containers entering the area has increased, but most carry food and humanitarian aid. Imports of industrial raw materials and building materials have been completely prohibited since June 2007. A report issued by the Red Cross stated that, in May 2009, only 2,662 trucks carrying goods entered the area, a drop of 80 percent from the 11,392 trucks that entered in April 2007. According to the Red Cross, the number of trucks entering the Gaza Strip was much less than needed to meet the population’s needs./>
In addition to the restrictions on imports, Israel has also prevented almost all exports. One hundred and forty-seven containers of flowers and strawberries have been exported from the Gaza Strip since the siege began, compared with a monthly average of over 1,000 containers prior to its imposition.
The shortage in basic imports, together with the prohibition on exports, have created an economic crisis in the Gaza Strip. Ninety percent of industrial companies have closed down, and the others have been forced to scale back their operations. After Operation Cast Lead, the Red Cross reported that 3,750 businesses had closed and approximately forty thousand persons (94 percent of the personnel in these businesses) had lost their jobs.
The stock of important food products has also dropped sharply and their prices have risen, while fruits and vegetables that were grown for export were sold in local markets at a loss. Due to the high poverty levels, this produce is also out of reach of many families.
As part of the siege policy, Israel has cut the distance from the coast that fishermen may go from twelve to three nautical miles, preventing them from reaching rich fishing areas. These restrictions have impaired the ability of thousands of fisherman and persons employed in ancillary industries to make a livelihood, and deprived the local population of a vital food source./>
Moreover, in May 2009, the IDF expanded the buffer zones adjacent to its border from 150 meters, which had been set following the disengagement, to more than 300 meters. This resulted in further severe harm to farmers, who comprise more than one-quarter of the population, since at least 30 percent of the farmland is located near the border.
The siege policy has led in recent years to a tunnels economy between the southern Gaza Strip and Rafah, Egypt. Diverse goods have entered through the tunnels, whose operation is controlled by Hamas, which collects taxes from the operators. In addition to consumer goods, 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./>
In addition to the serious harm caused to the civilian population during Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009), Israel also caused heavy damage to residential buildings, industrial plants, and agriculture, and to electricity, sanitation, water, and health infrastructure that was already on the verge of collapse. During the operation, the electricity shortage reached 75 percent, about half a million residents had no running water, and sewage flowed in the streets.
The closure of the crossings to the import of goods continues to prevent the reconstruction of vital infrastructure damaged during the operation. About 90 percent of Gaza residents suffer from blackouts lasting from four to eight hours every day, and some 10,000 Palestinians in the northern part of the Gaza Strip have no access to running water. It is impossible to rebuild the 3,450 residential dwellings that were destroyed and the 2,879 houses that were damaged. Twenty thousand uprooted Palestinians live in crowded conditions in rented apartments, with relatives, or in tents. The health system, which had to cope during and after the military operation with thousands of injured persons and with the damage resulting from Israeli attacks on medical teams and facilities, was severely harmed.
The prolonged siege and Operation Cast Lead have increased poverty and unemployment in the Gaza Strip. According to a Red Cross survey conducted in May 2008, over 70 percent of residents live in poverty, with a monthly income of less than $250 for a family of seven to nine persons (a dollar a day per person). Forty percent of families live in deep poverty, with a monthly income of less than $120 (half a dollar a day per person)./>/>
Seventy-five percent of Gaza residents, more than 1.1 million persons, now suffer from a lack of nutrition security, compared to 56 percent a year ago, and dependence on outside aid has risen from 5 percent prior to the siege to 26 percent in 2009. According to figures of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in the first quarter of 2009, the unemployment rate was 41.5 percent. For persons in the labor force under age thirty, the figure was almost 60 percent.