Beyond Ceasefire: Ending the blockade of Gaza

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The ceasefire agreed between the Government of Israel and Hamas on 21 November 2012, following the recent military escalation in Gaza and southern Israel, provides an unprecedented opportunity to end the cycle of violence that has affected too many innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians. In the ceasefire understanding, the parties agreed to negotiate ‘opening the crossings’ into the Gaza Strip and to put an end to ‘restricting residents’ free movement and targeting residents in border areas’. It is therefore also a unique chance to once and for all lift the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which has had a devastating impact on the lives and well-being of Gaza’s civilian population and on Palestinian development. In this briefing note Oxfam sets out practical recommendations to better protect civilians on both sides from violence and to finally achieve an end to the collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, whilst addressing Israel’s security concerns. These are necessary steps towards lasting peace in the region and the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
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  OXFAM BRIEFING NOTE 6 DECEMBER 2012 www.oxfam.org  The walkway from Gaza to Israel at the Erez crossing (2012). © Karl Schembri/Oxfam BEYOND CEASEFIRE Ending the blockade of Gaza The ceasefire agreed between the Government of Israel and Hamas on 21 November 2012, following the recent military escalation in Gaza and southern Israel, provides an unprecedented opportunity to end the cycle of violence that has affected too many innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians. In the ceasefire understanding, the parties agreed to negotiate ‘opening the crossings’ into the Gaza Strip and to put an end to ‘restricting residents’ free movement and targeting residents in border areas’. It is therefore also a unique chance to once and for all lift the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which has had a devastating impact on the lives and well- being of Gaza’s civilian population and on Palestinian development. In this briefing note Oxfam sets out practical recommendations to better protect civilians on both sides from violence and to finally achieve an end to the collective puni shment of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents , while addressing Israel’s security concerns. These are necessary steps towards lasting peace in the region and the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.  2 CURRENT NEEDS IN GAZA ‘Yes there's a truce that's obvious, but all the key issues for us ... the crossings, the fishing, the farmland [by the border] , are all still to be negotiated.’   Jabr Qdeih, Director of the Gaza Office, Ma'an Centre for Development, Gaza, 22 November 2012 The recent escalation in violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel has resulted in the deaths of at least 103 Palestinian and four Israeli civilians. Over 1,200 Palestinians and 224 Israelis were injured, the vast majority of whom were civilians. In Gaza, almost 2,000 homes and 136 schools sustained damaged, including two kindergartens supported by Oxfam. 1 This comes just four years after Operation Cast Lead, which resulted in the deaths of 13 Israelis and at least 1,440 Palestinians, the majority civilians, and between $659.3m and $891.8m worth of damage to Palestinian infrastructure. 2  The ceasefire agreed between the Government of Israel and Hamas on 21 November 2012 represents an unprecedented opportunity to end this cycle of violence and significantly improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. While the precise terms of the understanding reached between Hamas and the Israeli government are being worked out, people in Gaza will once again need international assistance to repair homes, schools and water systems, in addition to medical and psychosocial support. (Israel has not called upon international aid to assist its citizens and repair its infrastructure.) This comes on top of the devastating impact of more than five years of the Israeli government’s blockade of Gaza. Even before the recent military escalation on both sides, more than 44 per cent of Palestinian families living in Gaza were food insecure, 3  youth unemployment was at almost 50 per cent 4  and 80 per cent of the population received humanitarian aid. 5  Since the blockade started in 2007, nearly 60 per cent of Gaza’s businesses have closed and a further quarter have laid-off 80 per cent of their staff. 6  In addition, some 35 per c ent of Gaza’s agricultural land has  been placed out of bounds due to access restrictions imposed by the Israeli government in the area i nside Gaza known as the ‘buffer zone’. The buffer zone also limits access to the sea. Fishermen are only allowed to fish within three nautical miles of the shoreline, as opposed the 20 nautical miles guaranteed under the Oslo Accords. These restrictions have had a devastating impact on livelihoods, the economy and, ultimately, on poverty. The enforcement of the buffer zone has also had a severe impact on the safety of civilians. In 2011, 22 civilians were killed and 213 reportedly injured. 7  Despite commitments made by the Government of Israel to ease the blockade, entrance of goods to Gaza via Israeli-controlled crossings now stands at 40 per cent of pre-closure rates. Sale of goods from Gaza to   3 traditional markets in the West Bank and Israel remains banned, with exports at between two and three per cent of pre-June 2007 levels. Travel between the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel is at one per cent compared to September 2000; in 2000, Israeli authorities recorded over half a million entries from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank each month, today the figure stands at 4,000. 8  This stops trade, separates families, and prevents access to educational opportunities and hospitals, as well as cultural and religious sites. 9  The territorial separation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank also undermines prospects for the realization of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. Oxfam condemns violence against civilians and calls for a comprehensive settlement to the conflict based on international law and the two-state solution. Oxfam has supported work in Gaza for the past 15 years, helping civil society organizations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel to protect civilians and alleviate poverty; improving livelihoods and increasing access to food, water, sanitation, education and healthcare. 10   The Al-Bureij Camp For the past four months, many people in Al-Bureij camp have been left without piped clean water because of the blockade. Vital water filters needed for repairs at the nearby water desalination plant have been held up by the Israeli authorities. The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility in Gaza says it has no idea when the filters will arrive and when they will be able to carry out these critical repairs. Local people are forced to buy drinking water from private vendors. This is expensive for poor families whose finances already stretched to the limit. The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility fear that without the lifting of the blockade they will not be able to carry out the major work needed to repair the $535,000 worth of damage to water and sewage networks incurred during the recent Israeli operation. One of the sites most affected is also at Al-Bureij, where an Israeli airstrike hit a bridge that links Al Mughraqa and Al Nusirat towns. This caused significant damage to the water pipeline flowing under the bridge, cutting the water supply to 20,000 people living nearby, who now rely on tankered water. ISRAEL AND THE BLOCKADE The Government of Israel has stated that the aim of the blockade has been to isolate Hamas and to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. 11  It has also been reported by the Israeli human rights organization Gisha that the blockade is part of a ‘Separatio n Policy ’ to divide Palestinians. 12  Separating Palestinians who live in Gaza from those in the West Bank risks making the two-state solution impossible to achieve.  4 Even before the recent military escalation, Israeli military experts, such as Major General (res) Natti Sharoni, President of the Council for Peace and Security, firmly acknowledged the need for change: ‘Israel must recognize the need to lift the Gaza closure, which causes political damage and does not help undermine the Hamas regime or stop weap ons being smuggled into Gaza.’ 13  In addition to the hardship the blockade has caused Palestinian civilians, the November escalation in Gaza has shown that it has not adequately protected people on either side. Even before the recent escalation, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since the end of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in January 2009,  327 Palestinians and four Israelis were killed, in addition to 1,275 Palestinians and 29 Israelis injured due to clashes. 14  The closure of Gaza 15  by the Government of Israel has meant that Palestinian businesses have resorted to the use of tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt. Currently 47 per cent of all civilian goods come through these tunnels. 16  The opening of the crossings would provide more economically viable and secure alternatives to the tunnels (through which weapons have also been smuggled), potentially providing better options for monitoring the movement of goods to and from Gaza. There are some indications that the Israeli govern ment’s policy towards Gaza is starting to change, presenting an unprecedented opportunity for the international community to finally bring an end to the Israeli blockade.  In the recent ceasefire negotiations, the Israeli Government has, for the first time, come to an understanding with Hamas, agreeing to consider: ‘Opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods’. In addition, it agreed to refrain from: ‘ restricting residents ’  free movement and targeting residents in border areas. Procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.’ Reports in the media and from the ground suggest that the Israeli government is already allowing some farmers to visit land nearer its security fence with Gaza and letting Palestinian fishermen head a little further out to sea. 17  While these steps should be welcomed, much more needs to be done. Unless the broad terms outlined in the ceasefire understanding are elaborated on and implemented to fully open the crossings, the conditions in Gaza are unlikely to improve, risking future cycles of violence. OBLIGATIONS TO END THE BLOCKADE The Middle East Quartet, which includes the UN, EU and the governments of the United States and Russia, have made many statements calling for the unimpeded or unconditional movement of people and goods to and from Gaza. President Obama has called the
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