Over recent weeks the early signs that Gaza’s isolation may finally be coming to an end has given a wary and weary civilian population the stirrings of hope. 1 December will be another key milestone in a negotiation process launched in mid-October by the two main Palestinian political parties – Fatah and Hamas – aimed at returning the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Mahmoud Abbas, to Gaza after a 10-year absence. The Egyptian-brokered 12 October agreement caught most observers by surprise. It does not address the question of how Hamas will be disarmed nor many other difficult issues. But the first step needs to be about raising the wretched living conditions of Gaza’s two million civilians who live with little power, water or prospects.
It’s time the interests of Gaza’s exhausted citizens finally triumph over the many other agendas at play.
Only a few hundred kilometres from Europe’s border and 50km from Tel Aviv, two million Palestinians live a precarious existence in the Gaza Strip. Ten years ago, Gaza was banished to isolation, after the violent take-over by Hamas of the Strip, the ejection of the Palestinian Authority and the imposition of severe access restrictions around Gaza by Israel. In the decade since, Gaza’s civilians have been repeatedly caught in the crossfire of various conflicts – between the two major Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, over control of the Strip and between Israel and Hamas, leading periodically to open hostilities. They have also been caught between Hamas and Egypt, with its own security concerns about the Sinai and great wariness about the 12km of shared border, and between Hamas and international donors, whose anti-terror legislation limits what kind of aid gets to Gaza.
Each of these conflicts has, one way or the other, meant further suffering for civilians and the gradual “de-development” of the Gazan economy. Unemployment in this period has risen from 30 per cent to 42 per cent. Gaza’s fragile fresh-water aquifer has been massively over-extracted and become 96 per cent undrinkable. Power supply has hovered at 8-12 hours a day and fell to 2-3 hours earlier this year after Hamas-Fatah tensions came to a head. Young people have lost hope as youth unemployment is past 65 per cent. A creaking health infrastructure has seen breast cancer survival rates drop from 59 per cent to 46 per cent in less than 10 years.
Yet these numbers do not capture the less tangible impact of 10 years of isolation. Israel only permits a handful of mainly patients, business leaders and aid workers to exit and enter Gaza across their land crossings on a daily basis. The Egyptian crossing at Rafah opens rarely – 30 days this year so far. The Israeli navy tightly patrols the waters off Gaza’s coast. The Palestinian Government is nowhere to be seen. The overwhelming emotion amongst Gazans is a sense of being completely trapped. With the constant visible reminder of the proximity of a prosperous OECD country just a few kilometres along the beach – in the form of a power station and desalinisation plant in the Israeli city of Ashkelon that can produce enough power and water to supply every Gazan with both, 24/7, and then some. Gazans yearn to be able to get out – for healthcare, for education, for funerals and for oxygen.
In the wake of the October agreement, the PA’s Ramallah-based ministers began regularly visiting Gaza. In early November, the administration of the crossings – where tax is collected – was transferred to the PA by Hamas. In the weeks since, civil servants hired before the 2007 events have started to return to their old ministries. Potentially destabilising actions by spoilers – such as the assassination attempt on the Hamas chief of security or the discovery of yet another tunnel built by militants from Gaza into Israel – have not been allowed to derail the process.
But for the average Gazan, there has been no concrete change since this landmark agreement. Power supply today is around four to six hours day. The elevators still aren’t working in this urban high-rise landscape except when someone turns on the generator. The Rafah crossing remains largely shut, even if it did open for a few days last week. Hundreds of patients seeking urgent medical care outside Gaza – many for cancer treatment – await both Israeli-security and Ramallah-financing approvals. A drug shipment sent by the PA in the first half of November was the first tangible signal that help might be on the way.
And the coming weeks will bring some major tests. The next urgent question will be around who will pay the 40,000 or so Gaza employees hired since the 2007 take-over – thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers but also civilian police among them. Presumably increasingly complex issues – around the long-term integration of “pre-2007” and “post-2007” hired civil servants, weapons, Hamas’ military capabilities, security controls, elections, some form of unity government – will work their way up the agenda. And meanwhile, expectations and frustrations will rise, with increasing risk to the fragile progress.
The civilians of Gaza will be the ones, ultimately, that will underwrite any real transition and protect it from the spoilers. But they need something worth protecting and are desperate for some relief. First, they need freedom of movement to be able to leave Gaza and to return at will. Second, they need to see electricity back at least 12 hours a day. Third, restoring civil service allowances and stabilising salaries, at least for those staff actually delivering services and on whom people depend, is required.
These measures all require Palestinian leadership, but can’t be delivered by the PA alone – Israel, Egypt and the international community must play their part. Indeed, some easing of Israel’s restrictions on the movement of goods in and out of Gaza is a prerequisite to breathe life back into a dead economy and would send an important signal to the Gazan street. In a nutshell, talks in Cairo must urgently translate into relief for Gaza.
Robert Piper is the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory