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Israel's blockade of Gaza: The 21st century's longest siege

The failures of Israel's blockade of Gaza, the longest siege of the 21st century
6 min read
22 June, 2023
Analysis: Sixteen years after Israel's blockade, the policy of collective punishment has failed to quell Palestinian resistance despite the isolation and impoverishment it has forced on Gazans living in an open-air prison.

This June marks the 16th anniversary of the blockade Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip in June 2007, deemed illegal by many international bodies including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

An entire generation of Palestinians, born and raised in Gaza, has known no other reality but this one - punctuated by the blockade, recurring Israeli bombing campaigns, and restrictions on critical facets of life such as travel, healthcare, familial reunions, and access to basic human rights.

Despite the blockade being declared an illegal form of collective punishment, it persists as a policy. Palestinians in Gaza, many of whom were born after the blockade's implementation, have lived their entire lives in conditions of isolation and impoverishment.

Since Israel and its allies imposed the blockade in 2007, its nature has evolved in terms of scale and intensity.

Despite intermittent easing of the blockade during moments like the early years of the Arab uprisings, or the recent improvements at the Rafah crossing, the blockade remains the dominant framework shaping Gaza's relationships with its neighbours, particularly Israel.

Israel exerts control over Gaza's airspace, waterways, land crossings, key economic elements, and population registry.

After sixteen years of fluctuations in its severity, it appears the blockade has become a seemingly permanent aspect of Gaza's fate. Israeli policymakers, along with leaders in the security and intelligence establishments, appear to lack any substantive plan for Gaza beyond managing the blockade and engaging in cyclical "mow the lawn" assaults.

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Agenda of economic warfare and separation

Israel and its allies have used the blockade on Gaza as a tool of "economic warfare" against Hamas, according to an Israeli government document revealed by Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.

The disclosure, obtained through a lawsuit demanding greater transparency, has stoked claims that the blockade is a form of collective punishment against Palestinians, deviating from its supposed purpose as a security measure.

Israeli officials have openly acknowledged their hope that the severity of restrictions will push Palestinians to coerce Hamas into revising its stance toward Israel or dislodge the party from power.

Dov Weisglass, a former adviser to ex-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, notoriously depicted the objective in 2006 by stating, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger".

The lawsuit also led the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to disclose a 2008 document outlining Israel's approach to implementing the blockade. The document reveals the state's attempt to calculate the bare minimum caloric intake needed by Palestinians to prevent malnutrition, a measure formulated by Israel’s Ministry of Health.

This informed the government's decision on the quantity of food staples to be permitted into Gaza daily and the truckloads needed for its transportation. Significantly, it appeared that the supply of goods allowed into Gaza was guided by the agency's calculations, rather than the demand.

Israel's so-called "separation policy" further entrenches its position by physically and economically severing Gaza from the West Bank, in turn disrupting ties between the two Palestinian populations.

While there have been occasional "minor easings" of the blockade, ostensibly to enhance the livability of the Strip, the broader policy remains one of intentional restrictiveness.

Yisrael Katz, former Transportation Minister, hinted at the policy's purpose, stating, “If we cut off from Gaza – we would be cut off from half of the Palestinian problem".

Thus, the enduring blockade has served to fragment the Palestinian economy, creating isolated sub-groups with varied legal statuses and further fracturing Palestinian society.

By driving a wedge between the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli officials aim to delay the emergence of a united, viable Palestinian political entity that could underpin a future Palestinian state.

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Assessing the blockade sixteen years later

How do Palestinians, especially from Gaza, and their supporters, see the blockade sixteen years on?

Gaza-based journalist and peace activist Ahmed Abu Artema contends that the blockade's political objectives were to subdue Hamas and collectively punish the Palestinian people. In his view, the blockade failed to achieve these ends; instead, Hamas has adapted and fortified its position.

Still, the blockade has served as a strategic benefit for Israel by fragmenting Palestinian representation. Abu Artema told The New Arab that the blockade has reshaped the Gaza Strip into a so-called "hostile entity" and contributed to worsening the state of Palestinian political fragmentation.

For Jennifer Bing, Director of the Palestine Activism Program at the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago, it doesn’t seem like there is an agreed-upon objective behind the blockade at all.

The blockade has failed to crush Palestinian resistance, even as living conditions continue to deteriorate, Bing explained, emphasising the ongoing resilience of Palestinians and their determination to continue their daily lives and resist subjugation.

Palestinian writer Ali Bari echoes Abu Artema and Bing’s analyses. He explained that the blockade aimed to demonstrate to Palestinians that political solutions are unattainable and that choosing Hamas as their representative was a failed choice for them.

Bari concedes that the blockade has achieved some of its objectives, but told The New Arab that ultimately its failures, such as the evolution and unification of Palestinian resistance across various fronts, render the blockade ineffective.

Writer and journalist Muhammad Shehada proposes that the blockade's goals were twofold: to impose collective punishment on Palestinians in Gaza to weaken their ambitions and resistance, and to perpetuate Israel's policy of separating and isolating Gaza from the West Bank and the 1948 Green Line territories.

Shehada believes the blockade has succeeded in geographically separating Gaza from the West Bank but not in severing ties between armed factions in both regions. For Shehada, the blockade failed to exhaust armed resistance, although he acknowledges the collective punishment's devastating impact on Gaza's civilian population.

Will the blockade ever end?

For Bing, a central question in predicting the future of the blockade is the role of international advocacy and pressure to challenge Israel’s policy. However, Palestine activism is facing intensifying attempts at repression and censorship all over the world, particularly in the US and Europe. 

Still, Bing said that firsthand experiences of Palestinians from Gaza strengthen advocacy efforts, calls for greater solidarity, and demands for freedom for Gazans.

Sixteen years since its inception, the blockade must be recognised as a facet of Israel's prolonged campaigns of ethnic cleansing and erasure directed against Palestinians. It's essential to understand that the Gaza Strip, as we know it today, is a byproduct of the 1948 Nakba.

This pivotal event transformed the Strip into a secluded enclave, now home to a significant Palestinian population, the majority of whom originate from towns and villages situated just across the border of present-day Israel.

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From the blockade in Gaza to settler expansion in the West Bank, a singular objective underscores Israel's policies — to quell the Palestinian pursuit of freedom and self-determination through means of violence and erasure.

Undoubtedly, the blockade on Gaza has been one of the most prolonged sieges of the 21st century, and the toll it has exacted on the Palestinians in Gaza has been immense.

Nevertheless, the resounding message that Palestinians have sent to the world in the face of the sixteen-year blockade is that when collective punishment confronts collective dignity, it's the latter that ultimately triumphs, regardless of the cost.

Jehad Abusalim is the Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development in Washington, DC. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.

Follow him on Twitter: @JehadAbusalim