What Netanyahu can easily offer Obama on Gaza

Three ‘gestures’ Israel can easily make that will radically improve the lives of at least thousands of Palestinians — all without compromising one inch on its own security concerns.

By Amir Rotem

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama in the Oval Office, March 2012 (photo: The White House / Flickr)
File photo of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama in the Oval Office, March 2012 (White House photo)

In the hall of mirrors that is international diplomacy, all is being polished for the Netanyahu-Obama summit. Lists of gifts the two are expected to present each other are being leaked and commented upon. One of the things being said is that, on the advice of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel’s prime minister will offer up a number of gestures to Palestinian residents of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and lift some restrictions.

We’ve seen this before: defining a certain policy choice as absolutely essential for security and then suddenly, doing a complete 180 and reversing the choice. It will be labeled as a “gesture” instead of a fundamental change and no one will recognize, let alone repent for, the senselessness with which sweeping restrictions had been imposed on the entire population — a simple variation on the chorus, while the song remains the same.

Yet actual, radical change is exactly what’s called for, particularly with regard to Israel’s attitude toward Palestinians living in Gaza and it’s not as hard as it looks. The key for that change, is reversing the separation Israel insists on, between residents of Gaza and residents of the West Bank. Since the end of Operation Protective Edge one a year ago, Israel’s own top security officials have themselves articulated the need to improve conditions of life in the Strip as an Israeli security necessity. Such improvement is not possible without rehabilitating the economy and allowing Palestinian society to breathe, which itself is not possible without linking Gaza back up with the West Bank. For all these reasons, this particular moment in time presents an historic opportunity to change the momentum. A number of steps could be taken while still considering all necessary security precautions, which will help improve Israel’s international standing, but mostly, significantly improve the quality of life of millions of Palestinians living under its control.

Truly opening up possibilities for trade. Israel claims to be implementing a different policy than the full closure that reigned supreme for seven bad years from 2007– 2014. It boasts of the choice it made in late 2014 and early 2015 to allow Gaza-made and -produced goods to be sold in Gaza’s natural markets, in the West Bank and Israel respectively. But, a litany of restrictions reduces the number and kinds of people who are actually able to trade (a quota of trade permits is distributed based on volume of trade, so out the window go smaller businesses that tend to be run by young people and women) and eat away at the profitability of those who can. How? By limiting the height of produce stacked on platforms thus decreasing the profit earned on every truckload; by restricting the entrance of wood and other construction materials from entering, thus practically destroying the furniture industry and slowing down reconstruction, and by assuming a role in running the Palestinian market based on assessments of gain and probability, just to list a few examples. Gaza’s economy is part of the Palestinian economy, and it could begin to recuperate given the necessary access.

Lifting travel restrictions that have nothing to do with security. Student travel to universities abroad has become a rarity, especially since the Rafah border crossing into Egypt has remained mostly closed. It’s not clear what Israel gains by preventing students from traveling through Israel to Jordan, on their way to their studies abroad. This morning’s news about some 60 students’ late departure for their studies (out of hundreds still stuck in Gaza) points more to the problem than its solution. Palestinians need to travel for both the everyday and the extraordinary reasons most people take for granted: things like conferences and seminars or family visits and reunification are off-limits. The restrictions on family visits between relatives divided between different parts of the Palestinian territory take a heavy, unjustified human toll and can’t be explained by security needs.

Lifting the maritime closure. Gaza’s fishermen have not been able to get to potent fishing grounds for years because of Israeli imposed restrictions on how far they may sail from Gaza’s shoreline. Gaza’s fishing industry provided a source of livelihood for thousands of families. Army officials have acknowledged its importance. In addition to this, allowing a commercial sea port serving Gaza to operate would have an immediate positive effect on export profitability without requiring Israel to compromise on security.

These three suggestions could be trust-building steps on the road that has ostensibly already begun toward finally letting go of the socio-economic warfare that has caused so much suffering to all residents of the region. These steps could be taken regardless of the pace or nature of any diplomatic moves. They could advance stability, which is the foundation for dialogue, but more importantly, they are the right thing to do.

Amir Rotem is the director of Gisha’s public department.

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