Collective Punishment in Gaza


Insofar as the Gaza flotilla was a publicity stunt aimed at drawing attention to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, it’s been an enormous success, and I think that’s the thing that really matters here. The ins-and-outs of exactly what happened as the IDF hit the flotilla are important, in a legal sense, but morally speaking the crucial thing is the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip and not the details of blockade enforcement. Janine Zacharia very casually observes in her Washington Post profile of the situation in Gaza that “Originally, Israel hoped the closure would put enough pressure on the local economy that Gazans would grow frustrated and oust Hamas.”

This is a politically and morally scandalous approach. As I’ve noted before, 45 percent of Gaza residents are children under the age of 15. This policy of collective punishment is so indefensible that, as Peter Beinart notes, people inclined to support Israeli policy generally deny that this is what the policy is. Instead, they describe the blockade as some kind of narrow effort to prevent arms smuggling. But this simply isn’t what’s going on. The objective is to make life in Gaza miserable, while avoiding something newsworthy like a famine:

This explains why Israel prevents Gazans from importing, among other things, cilantro, sage, jam, chocolate, French fries, dried fruit, fabrics, notebooks, empty flowerpots and toys, none of which are particularly useful in building Kassam rockets. It’s why Israel bans virtually all exports from Gaza, a policy that has helped to destroy the Strip’s agriculture, contributed to the closing of some 95 percent of its factories, and left more 80 percent of its population dependent on food aid. It’s why Gaza’s fishermen are not allowed to travel more than three miles from the coast, which dramatically reduces their catch. And it’s why Israel prevents Gazan students from studying in the West Bank, a policy recently denounced by 10 winners of the prestigious Israel Prize. There’s a name for all this: collective punishment.

Israel does not deserve all the blame for Gaza’s impoverishment. Gaza’s other neighbor, Egypt, imposes an embargo of its own, though less effectively. And Hamas has been known to confiscate goods meant for Gaza’s poor. But none of that excuses Israel’s role in keeping Gaza destitute. Far from a well-crafted policy, the Gaza embargo has become something you might find in a University of Chicago seminar about the perversions inherent in interfering with free trade. As Haaretz detailed in a remarkable investigative report last summer, the embargo is not merely arbitrary (Gazans can import cinnamon, but not chocolate), it is corrupt. When Israeli farmers have surplus supply, they seek loopholes for the goods they wish to sell. Israeli officials allow Gazans to import Israeli products, but not the materials necessary to make those products themselves, since that would threaten Israel’s hold on the Gazan market. As the Israeli human-rights group Gisha has noted, Gazans can buy Israeli-made tomato paste, but cannot buy the empty cans necessary to preserve and market their own, which would compete with Israeli suppliers.

There are two big problems with this for the United States, aside from the basic immorality of it. One is that we’re Israel’s main international sponsor—giving them more foreign aid than we give any other country, as well as hard-to-value diplomatic support and private assistance. It’s difficult for the United States to be seen as credibly interested in the welfare of Arab or Muslim people anywhere in the world when we’re complicit in a policy in Gaza that seems premised on the idea that Palestinian well-being doesn’t count. The other is that while this immiseration problem probably will erode Hamas’ political support over the long run, it’s much more likely to erode it in favor of support for even more radical groups than it is to produce a revival of liberal humanism in Gaza.