Palestinians hang flags in the Israeli imposed “buffer zone” in the Gaza Strip after a protest in 2010 (Photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
The ceasefire agreement that ended the latest Gaza assault offers some opportunity for change in the Israeli policy of closure towards the Gaza Strip, the executive director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, said today. Sari Bashi, the director, made the comments earlier today in a conference call with supporters of the group.
Bashi was referring to the cessation of hostilities between Hamas and Israel after the Israeli military waged a punishing, week-long assault on the Gaza Strip. A major part of the ceasefire agreement was the stipulation that there would be an “opening [of] the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas.” But the agreement also said that “procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.” Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas, mediated by Egypt, have been ongoing since the ceasefire ended the Israeli air bombardments.
Israel has imposed a crippling air, land and sea blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007, when Hamas took over the area after winning elections and beating back an attempted Western-backed coup by Fatah. Up until 2010, many imports were banned, including basic food items. After Israel killed 9 people aboard the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla, though, international pressure ramped up and an easing of the blockade was enacted that allowed for the entry of goods into Gaza. Still, the naval blockade did not end, nor did restrictions on construction material and exports.
Now, after the end of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Bashi said that “there’s some real opportunity” with the ceasefire. “There’s an opportunity with the ceasefire terms being negotiated in Egypt that could lead to more security for Israel and greater freedom of movement for Palestinians.”
Indeed, after the Israeli assault ended, news reports were published indicating a slight easing of the closure policies towards Gaza. But the news hasn’t been all good, as Israel has continued, at times, to shoot at people in the buffer zone and harass fishermen in Gaza. News reports said that fishermen would be allowed to venture out 6 nautical miles from Gaza, instead of the debilitating three miles they had been constricted to since 2008. And farmers, long cut off from agricultural land near the de facto Israel-Gaza border, would be allowed to visit and tend to their land.
I asked Bashi what she made of this news. “We hope it’s a beginning, not an end point,” she said, noting that many people, mostly civilian, had been killed by Israel if they ventured into what is called the “buffer zone.”
“There has been nothing official as of yet. Farmers have been approaching the border…many of them have done so without being harmed,” said Bashi.
Demonstrators in the “buffer zone,” though, have been shot at. One Palestinian man was killed last week by Israeli forces after a group of people in Gaza gathered for Friday prayers on their land near the border. More Palestinians have been wounded in recent days as well.
As for fishermen, they too have complained about continued Israeli restrictions, despite an Israeli official confirming to the New York Times that there was a “new arrangement” allowing the fishers to go out 6 miles. But the Times reported November 28 that “Israeli forces detained a Palestinian fisherman and seized two boats as their crews tried to venture farther into the Mediterranean Sea.” Ma’an News reported on the same incident, saying that “Israeli forces detained nine fishermen off Gaza’s north coast on Wednesday.”
But even if fishermen could venture out 6 miles, Bashi says that’s not enough. “Many people are concerned that the more valuable fishing stocks are further out: 8 miles and 12 miles. And the Oslo accords call for 20 miles….And we hope that it will be extended,” she said on the conference call.
Gisha also has a major concern about the ceasefire agreement: the “link some people are trying to create between the terms of the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities and access for civilians. While we’re very happy that the ceasefire is leading to negotiations, we don’t think that access should be linked to the behavior of militants,” said Bashi
The larger context to the discussion of the Gaza blockade and closure, Bashi noted, is the separation between Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has encouraged this separation, and the closure policies have reinforced the division between Gaza and the West Bank. Access to the West Bank for people in Gaza is “critical for Palestinian society,” and any resolution of the conflict is premised on West Bank-Gaza unity, Bashi said. While Israel claims their blockade is about Hamas, the restrictions on travel between the West Bank and Gaza have been in place since 2000–when Hamas was not in power in Gaza.
Gisha continues to advocate for three major changes to Israel’s Gaza policy: the severe restrictions on students trying to travel to the West Bank and people getting medical care; the lack of options to market goods in the West Bank and Israel, which is key to economic recovery in Gaza; and the restriction on construction materials that mostly prevents the international community from rebuilding in an efficient and timely way.
None of those major restrictions seem to be part of the easing of freedom of movement that the ceasefire stipulated.