Who Really Controls Gaza? Israel’s Election, Netanyahu, and the struggle for Israel’s Soul

How answering “Who controls Gaza?” can tell you a lot about why today’s election is so important.

In today’s election, Israel must choose between peace and being an oppressor, between new leadership and the Netanyahu faction. Why an examination of Gaza’s sovereignty is essential to understanding why.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse March 17, 2015 

By Brian E. Frydenborg March 17th, 2015

This was also published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) here. If you think your site or another would be a good place for this content please do not hesitate to reach out to me! Please feel free to share and repost on LinkedIn,Facebook, and Twitter (you can follow me there at@bfry1981)

The following is largely excerpted and adapted from an earlier article I wrote this summer, Part II of The Israel-Hamas Gaza High-Stakes Poker Game of Death, itself part of a larger article that is available as an eBook format atBarnes & Noble,Amazon, or as an ePub file.

As Nicolas Kristof eloquently noted recently and also as far back as 2008, there are two Israels: one of lasting democracy, justice, and liberal Western values, and one of perpetual occupation, settlements, and fear.

And today, Israel chooses which one it wants to be to the rest of the world, to Arabs, to Palestinians, and to themselves. Either they “grow up,” as Shmuel Rosner writes, or they will demonstrate that for now and likely the foreseeable future, Israel will not be a partner capable of or interested in peace. In particular, Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been an obstructionist for years, deliberately undermining the peace process throughout his career, including when he was prime minister from 1996-1999 and from 2009 until now. Before, he would be coy about his intentions, but just in the last few days, he has admitted that some settlements were designed to cut off and prevent Palestinian access and growth, and he even said publicly he was against the two-state solution and against a Palestinian state, confirming in words what he has confirmed in action for years.

As for the Gaza Strip, If Netanyahu and his allies have their way and prevail in today’s elections, its current setup and relationship with Israel could be a glimpse into the future of the West Bank, the territory with majorities of Palestine’s land and people. Israel occupied Gaza in 1967 during the Six-Day War, and a level of hubris emerged within Israel that enabled it to believe it could occupy the West Bank and Gaza with its many Palestinian Arabs, and not just occupy, but occupy indefinitely and aggressively colonize and settleboth lands with many thousands and thousands of Jews, all the while continuing to deny basic freedoms to the Palestinians, governed through the military boots of Israel’s army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). And not only was the hubris so high that Israelis believed they could do all this, they believed they could do all this indefinitely with no actual long-term plan for what to do with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, people for whom Israel was now fully legally responsible since the moment it took the territories from Jordan and Egypt, respectively. Israel claims to have withdrawn from there and that this fact means Israel no longer controls Gaza and therefore has no responsibility towards it. How true this is will tell us much about Netanyahu, his supporters, and the Israel that they and their policies represent, as well as telling us much about the character of the Israeli people.

Who Really Controls Gaza? (or, Does Israel Still “Occupy” Gaza?)

Here we look at who controls Gaza, because the degree of control matches the degree of responsibility for the welfare of the people of Gaza and for what happens in Gaza.

Israel and its supporters are fond of claiming that it totally withdrew in from Gaza 2005, that there is no more occupation, that Israel has no obligations to Gaza as an occupier under international law, and that Hamas, the Islamist terrorist resistance and charity movement that won subsequent elections in Gaza, is fully responsible for Gaza. Some go as far as to claim Israel’s control never even amounted to legal occupation, even from 1967. However, Israel’s position is incredibly misleading. While people may debate the reasons for, and the justification of, and the exact degree of Israel’s control over Gaza, there can be no debate that Israel still exercises a significant amount of control, and that with that significant control comes significant responsibility.

Israel’s position is incredibly misleading. While people may debate the reasons for, and the justification of, and the exact degree of Israel’s control over Gaza, there can be no debate that Israel still exercises a significant amount of control, and that with that significant control comes significant responsibility.

Let us break down the specifics of that control:

Israel has complete control over Gaza’s airspace. Gaza’s airport was only built in 1998, but Israel closed it in 2000 with the outbreak of the Second Intifada and later bombed it in 2001. The only aircraft going into Gazan airspace are Israeli military aircraft.

Israel also has total control over Gaza’s coastal waters. It does not allow goods to move by sea into or out of Gaza (with only very rare exceptions), and imposes severe restrictions on Gaza’s fishing industry. And Israel also maintains a naval blockade. It destroyed Gaza’s nascent port facilities in 2001, and has prevented new facilities from being established ever since.

Israel also maintains full control over all land crossing between Israel and Gaza. It often keeps most, and sometimes all, of the crossings closed. Sometimes, some of the few crossings that are open are open only for humanitarian situations or urgent medical situations. Only a few thousand of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are allowed to cross, on average, each month. Israel has total control over which good are allowed in and out and when, exercising an enormous influence over the economy, zoning, and urban planning of Gaza. Israel also has some control over the one crossing between Egypt and Gaza, as anyone who travels through it must be pre-approved by Israel via the population registry. Egypt’s crossing saw a lot more movement of goods and people under Morsi, but this movement shrank dramatically after his ouster, and after clashes with militants in the area in August 2013, it was closed by Egypt’s military government, but has just been reopened “sporadically” during the past few weeks of conflict to allow a trickle of Gazans injured in the fighting (140 as of August 1st) to seek medical treatment in Egypt.

Israel also still has complete control over the Palestinian population registry. Any changes to birth, marriage, divorce, or death records, in addition to official address changes, must be approved by Israel. The issuing of official ID, including passports, must also be approved by Israel. Since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel has not allowed Gazans who have been living for years in the West Bank to change their official addresses to reflect this.

Israel also controls most of Gaza’s taxation. It sets the international customs rates and Value Added Tax (VAT)—which is included in the price of any goods—for all goods sold in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel collects the VAT or customs fees from the merchants, and then it has the power to transfer these taxes to the Palestinian Authority. When Israel chooses, it can (and often has) withheld these taxes when it has disputes with the Palestinians. Hamas has gotten around some of this by levying its own taxes on goods smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through tunnels (not to be confused with the tunnels Hamas built for military reasons). Most of these tunnels were destroyed recently by Egypt, crushing Gaza’s economy, and in the past, Israel has also taken action against these smuggling tunnels.

On the ground inside Gaza, do not let anyone tell that Israel completelywithdrew; Israel actually controls several buffer zones inside of the Gaza Strip, totaling 17 percent of all Gaza’s territory and one-third of all of its farmland. These zones include an officially off-limits zone, and a further zone which is a “grey-area.” Any Palestinians in either zone risk being shot, and shootings are not uncommon. Furthermore, Israel destroys crops and structures within this zone multiple times a week, on average. Israel also says it maintains the right to militarily enter all of Gaza at will, which is clear from its repeated invasions and military operations conducted after the 2005 disengagement.

Israel actually controls several buffer zones inside of the Gaza Strip, totaling 17 percent of all Gaza’s territory and one-third of all of its farmland.

Israel Controls most of Gaza’s civilian and utility infrastructure. Israel supplies most of Gaza’s power through eleven power lines running into Gaza from Israel. Though Gaza has a power station that was built in 1998, it was severely damaged in 2006 and has not been fully repaired since, and was just hit multiple times by Israeli forces in this last round of hostilities, completely shutting the plant down. Israel had also previously restricted the importation of resources needed to run the power station. Gaza’s dependence on Israeli-supplied electricity also means that most water and sewage utilities are also dependent on Israel, since they need electricity for their pumping actions. Internet, wireless and wired communications services are also all run through Israeli networks, and Israel obviously controls the importation of materials necessary to repair, maintain, and expand them.

Israel also controls all travel of Palestinians between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to anywhere else. This is not just because Israel separates the two territories; Israel also controls all entrances into and exits from the West Bank, including its border with Jordan, and does not allow those with Gaza residencies to travel into the West Bank, even for academic reasons.

Given that all this amounts to “effective control,” when it comes to international law and treaties which Israeli is a signatory to, Israel still has legal responsibilities under international law, including under Article 42 of the Hague Regulations, as it is still an occupying power governed by the Law of Occupation, even if its ground forces have generally withdrawn from 83 percent of Gaza. Despite the partial withdrawal of ground forces, then, the Gaza Strip must still be considered for all practical and legal purposes an occupied territory and under Israeli military occupation from 1967 through today for all of the reasons mentioned above. Gaza has not had one day of full sovereignty, or anything even close to it, since the 2005 Israeli “disengagement.”

Gaza has not had one day of full sovereignty, or anything even close to it, since the 2005 Israeli “disengagement.”

All this means that yes, while Hamas exercises a major degree of control, so does Israel, and under international law, both have responsibilities for the Gazan people and for what happens in Gaza. It could even be argued that Israel bears most of the responsibility, but even if it does not, it still bears a major portion of it, and Hamas itself can only held responsible for the people of Gaza and what happens inside Gaza to the degree that it can exercise full control over Gaza. The sad reality for Gazans, then, is that they are the joint legal responsibility of two entities—Hamas and Israel—that do not directly communicate with each other, that hate each other, that want to destroy each other, and that rarely put the interests of the Gazan people over their own.

A Defining Moment of Truth

Israel is not being honest with itself (or anyone else, for that matter) when it comes to Gaza. These policies in Gaza represents some of the worst and most hypocritical that Israel (and Netanyahu, who opposed the 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza, in particular) can offer. Currently, Israel denies sovereignty to millions of Palestinians and oppresses them. It is one thing to accept this situation temporarily, and entirely another to desire it for the longer-term. Yet now, Israel seems poised to finally say no leadership that believes that this is that future, that has no strategic mindset and only offers tactical success and short-term convenience by accepting perpetual conflict. It should be clear to Israel and its people that this is wrong, but it is not. Sadly, most voters are not paying attention to these issues, or to the fact that Netanyahu is trying to sabotage a peaceful settlement on the Iranian nuclear questions, or that he is willing to publicly disrespect the current President of the United States of America publicly in the halls of Congress before a joint session of the House and Senate. They are, ironically, paying attention to an issue that is also driven by conservative Netanyahu-Likud policy: growing inequality. That very domestic of issues, more so than any conscious struggle over Israel’s soul or for long-term peace, seems to be the issue that may topple Netanyahu from power.

But one group of Israeli citizens is paying attention to the soul struggle: Arab Palestinian-Israelis, over 20% of Israel’s population. After years of disorganization and apathy, Israel’s Palestinian political community seems to finally be uniting into a single joint-alliance led by the charismatic Ayman Odeh and poised to make a significant impact on the outcome of this election. The Arab alliance has even pledged to support Netanyahu’s main rival, Isaac Herzog. If Netanyahu, on track to become Israel’s longest-servingPrime Minister, finally falls because of Arab Palestinian-Israel citizens organizing effectively, winning seats in Israel’s Knesset (parliament), and governing and participating fully in Israel’s democratic system, what better way present a better face to the world, Arabs, Palestinians, and themselves, to show that they are capable of peace and coexistence? What stronger evidence for the promise of Israel and of democracy?

If, however, Israel’s voters and parties fail to rise to the challenge, the world may very well judge Israel for its incapabilities and broken promises. Win or lose, it should and must judge Netanyahu for his.

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