Gaza: frontiers or prison walls?

Introduction: I am grateful to Dave, who has contributed many informative (and sometimes controversial) comments to my blog, for allowing me to put here this exchange of messages between himself and an Israeli contact, ‘A’, about the nature of the border between Gaza and Israel.  I know nothing of ‘A’, and not much more about Gaza’s borders, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of A’s remarks in this exchange.  Nor do I take sides over the issues discussed.  But many of the points made and the questions asked seem to me to shed fresh and useful light on issues which some of the UK media have perhaps tended to present in over-simplified black and white in their coverage of the recent tragic conflict.  Anyway, judge for yourself.  (If you wish to leave a comment, please do so at the foot of the accompanying blog post at

25 February 2009


Dave: A particular grievance of the Palestinians and their supporters is the alleged blockade: they claim to be in a giant open air prison, unable to move in or out or to import or export goods or materials. Recognising that restrictions exist, I had a strong impression that they were a great deal less tight in the past, so I asked a knowledgeable Israeli contact, A, who lives in one of the Jewish communities on the West bank, how the present situation had developed over time.

A replied on 1 February:-

A: Regarding the borders: first of all I think it is worthwhile to remember that by virtue of being a sovereign country, Israel has the right to control its own borders, just like any other country. Every country in the world imposes various restrictions on the movement of people and goods across its borders (the UK does), and it is very important to make the point that Israel has this right as well. Even if Gaza would become its own independent state, this fact would not change, and Israel would still have the right to control its own borders. In other words, please let’s not imagine that once the Palestinians have their own state, the borders with Israel will all of a sudden “magically” open. Quite the reverse: I imagine that the borders with Israel will be quite hermetically sealed at that point.

Now with regard to your question of the historical trend:

From the end of the Six Day war in 1967 until well into the first intifada, the borders between Israel and Gaza (just like the borders between Israel and the West Bank) were non-existent. That is, there were no border controls, and there was no one checking the roads. Anyone could drive or walk freely within the entire area, and in fact many Palestinians would go into Tel Aviv every weekend to visit movie theaters, cafes, discos, etc. Palestinians were also freely employed in Israel; I know this from personal knowledge as I have good friends in Kfar Maimon, which is located only a few kilometers from Gaza, and they employed many Palestinians at the time.

At some point during the first intifada, security checks and/or roadblocks started to be implemented. To begin with, this was purely a security measure to try to prevent terrorists from reaching Israeli citizens in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, while continuing to provide freedom of movement to innocent people, Jews and Palestinians alike. This was a very gradual process, starting with ad-hoc surprise check posts that would be set up in one day and then taken down and moved elsewhere. Gradually, some of these check posts took on a more permanent character, and this started to hinder freedom of movement, especially for Palestinians living in Gaza. Palestinians started to need work permits to be able to enter Israel, and there were endless discussions in the Israeli government on how many to allow inside; this was a delicate balancing act between security needs and the need to prevent Israeli economic activity that was dependent on Palestinian labor (such as agriculture) from crashing down from lack of labor forces.

The implementation of the Oslo agreement started with Gaza and Jericho. Shortly after Arafat entered Gaza in 1994, Israeli citizens were prevented from entering PA-ruled Gaza except by government permit. This was later extended to all “zone A” (full Palestinian control) areas. The earlier check posts now took on more of the “look and feel” of actual border controls. The Palestinians under PA control were issued their own identity papers, and were prevented from entering Israel unless they had obtained work permits. One of the goals of the Oslo agreement was to gradually disentangle the economies of Israel and the PA areas, and to further this goal Israel gradually reduced its dependency on Palestinian labor and started allowing foreign workers in instead (mostly from Thailand and the Philippines). Less and less Palestinians therefore were entitled to work permits.

I am not sure exactly when the fence around Gaza started to be built; however, I do know that the fence around Gaza was completed well before the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza during which Israel relinquished the Gaza settlements. If anything, the fence encouraged Palestinian terror groups to look for other terrorist activities that they could be engaged in without the need to cross the border into Israel; this led to the development of the Qassam rockets, the first of which hit Israeli territory in 2002.

While people movement was inhibited, goods could be moved in and out of the Gaza strip during most of this time, via official border posts. These posts would be periodically closed due to terrorist activity (they tried to blow up such border posts many times) but they would always open a few days or weeks afterwards. Even after the “disengagement” from Gaza, and the intensifying rocket fire, goods continued to be allowed into Gaza. This led to a public outcry in Israel, as the public was increasingly unwilling to continue to support the hostile Palestinian population in Gaza. Supplies were cut and then re-established countless times.

The Hamas in Gaza increasingly controlled the influx of goods into Gaza, first as a terrorist organization and later as a legitimately elected government. A large portion of the supplies never makes it to the general Palestinian population but gets stuck in Hamas hands and is either stockpiled or used to manufacture or buy weapons. This is another reason why the Israeli population is increasingly demanding a complete stop to the flow of any and all supplies to Gaza.

Dave: ‘As you say, Israel is entitled to control its frontiers like any other state. The difference is that Israel also controls the Gaza coast, I believe. I think that must be underpinned by the Oslo Accords, specifically:-


It is understood that, subsequent to the Israel withdrawal, Israel will continue to be responsible for external security, and for internal security and public order of settlements and Israelis. Israeli military forces and civilians may continue to use roads freely within the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area.”‘

A: Yes, you are correct in that Israel currently also controls the Gaza coast. However, almost all of the demands that Hamas are making are for Israel to open the “border crossings”; this term refers to the border crossings between Gaza and Israel such as Kisufim, Kerem Shalom, etc. There have been hardly any demands lately to “open the Gaza coast”.

Dave: …. The coast must be quite important security-wise, though, or the Royal Navy wouldn’t be involved in preventing weapons smuggling, as I understand they will be.

A: Among the Palestinians there seems to be a general opinion that if they had their own internationally recognized and sovereign country, they could somehow “force” Israel to open its borders to them. My point is that Israel, as a sovereign country, could legally decide not to allow any Palestinians from Gaza to enter Israel. Nice? No. Legal under international law? Certainly. But I am sure that the “double standard” that is consistently being applied to Israel will find a way to declare that Israel cannot deny Palestinians entry…

Dave: I’m sorry to be a pest, especially as you have been so helpful, but I’m puzzled by the opening words of the statement, “One of the goals of the Oslo agreement was to gradually disentangle the economies of Israel and the PA areas, and to further this goal Israel gradually reduced its dependency on Palestinian labor and started allowing foreign workers in instead (mostly from Thailand and the Philippines). Less and less Palestinians therefore were entitled to work permits.”
The Oslo Declaration of Principles contains provisions on economic co-operation, viz,

“Article XI: Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in economic fields
Recognizing the mutual benefit of cooperation in promoting the development of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel, upon the entry into force of this Declaration of Principles, an Israeli-Palestinian Economic Cooperation Committee will be established in order to develop and implement in a cooperative manner the programs identified in the protocols attached as Annex III and Annex IV.
Annex III
Protocol on Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation in economic and development programs
The two sides agree to establish an Israeli-Palestinian Continuing Committee for Economic Cooperation, focusing, among other things, on the following:
1. Cooperation in the field of water, including a Water Development Program prepared by experts from both sides, which will also specify the mode of cooperation in the management of water resources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and will include proposals for studies and plans on water rights of each party, as well as on the equitable utilization of joint water resources for implementation in and beyond the interim period.
2. Cooperation in the field of electricity, including an Electricity Development Program, which will also specify the mode of cooperation for the production, maintenance, purchase and sale of electricity resources.
3. Cooperation in the field of energy, including an Energy Development Program, which will provide for the exploitation of oil and gas for industrial purposes, particularly in the Gaza Strip and in the Negev, and will encourage further joint exploitation of other energy resources. This Program may also provide for the construction of a Petrochemical industrial complex in the Gaza Strip and the construction of oil and gas pipelines.
4. Cooperation in the field of finance, including a Financial Development and Action Program for the encouragement of international investment in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and in Israel, as well as the establishment of a Palestinian Development Bank.
5. Cooperation in the field of transport and communications, including a Program, which will define guidelines for the establishment of a Gaza Sea Port Area, and will provide for the establishing of transport and communications lines to and from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Israel and to other countries. In addition, this Program will provide for carrying out the necessary construction of roads, railways, communications lines, etc.
6. Cooperation in the field of trade, including studies, and Trade Promotion Programs,which will encourage local, regional and inter-regional trade, as well as a feasibility study of creating free trade zones in the Gaza Strip and in Israel, mutual access to these zones, and cooperation in other areas related to trade and commerce.
7. Cooperation in the field of industry, including Industrial Development Programs, which will provide for the establishment of joint Israeli-Palestinian Industrial Research and Development Centers, will promote Palestinian-Israeli joint ventures, and provide guidelines for cooperation in the textile, food, pharmaceutical, electronics, diamonds, computer and science-based industries.
8. A program for cooperation in, and regulation of, labor relations and cooperation in social welfare issues.
9. A Human Resources Development and Cooperation Plan, providing for joint Israeli-Palestinian workshops and seminars, and for the establishment of joint vocational training centers, research institutes and data banks.
10. An Environmental Protection Plan, providing for joint and/or coordinated measures in this sphere.
11. A program for developing coordination and cooperation in the field of communication and media.
12. Any other programs of mutual interest.

Annex IV
Protocol on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation concerning regional development programs
1. The two sides will cooperate in the context of the multilateral peace efforts in promoting a Development Program for the region, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, to be initiated by the G-7. The parties will request the G-7 to seek the participation in this program of other interested states, such as members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, regional Arab states and institutions, as well as members of the private sector.
2. The Development Program will consist of two elements:
o An Economic Development Program for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
o A Regional Economic Development Program.
A. The Economic Development Program for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will consist of the following elements:
3. A Social Rehabilitation Program, including a Housing and Construction Program.
4. A Small and Medium Business Development Plan.
5. An Infrastructure Development Program (water, electricity, transportation and communications, etc.).
6. A Human Resources Plan.
7. Other programs.
B. The Regional Economic Development Program may consist of the following elements:
8. The establishment of a Middle East Development Fund, as a first step, and a Middle East Development Bank, as a second step.
9. The development of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian Plan for coordinated exploitation of the Dead Sea area.
10. The Mediterranean Sea (Gaza) – Dead Sea Canal.
11. Regional Desalinization and other water development projects.
12. A regional plan for agriculture development, including a coordinated regional effort for the prevention of desertification.
13. Interconnection of electricity grids.
14. Regional cooperation for the transfer, distribution and industrial exploitation of gas, oil and other energy resources.
15. A regional Tourism, Transportation and Telecommunications Development Plan.
16. Regional cooperation in other spheres.
1. The two sides encourage the multilateral working groups, and will coordinate towards their success. The two parties will encourage intersessional activities, as well as pre-feasibility and feasibility studies, within the various multilateral working groups.

I also thought, rightly or wrongly, that fewer Palestinian workers were employed because Israelis were being killed even after Oslo. As you say, Thais and Filipinos were brought in. There were also people from the former USSR.
If you’ve got a moment, could you please clarify this point?

A: Not a pest; always glad to try to be of assistance!

I think the confusion stems from what is the definition of “economic cooperation” as defined in the Oslo agreement compared to “economic entanglement” as I meant it. Of course the Oslo agreement contains clauses on economic cooperation as you have stated [above]. However, “economic cooperation” as meant in the Oslo agreement is like all bilateral economic cooperation: working together to further joint economic goals in various areas. Nothing in the Oslo agreement was meant to perpetuate the situation that existed prior to Oslo whereby the entire Palestinian economy was dependent on the Palestinian workers working within Israel. The opposite is true: the various clauses in the Oslo agreement were meant to try to rectify that situation, to try to put the Palestinian economy on a more equal footing, and at the same time, reduce the daily exposure of Palestinians and Israelis to each other to a minimum in order to reduce chances for terrorist groups to take advantage of this exposure.

As an example, the Palestinian-Israeli joint ventures mentioned in the Oslo agreement were to be located on the borders between Israel and the Palestinian areas, thereby allowing Palestinians to enter from the Palestinian side and Israelis from the Israeli side.

This is why I am saying that a reduction of the dependency of the Israeli economy on Palestinian labor was one of the goals of Oslo. It fits in with the larger goal of establishing an independent Palestinian economy.

People from the (former) USSR are not generally seen as replacements for Palestinian labor even though during a transitory period some of them may have done some of the work that Palestinians used to do before. The simple reason is that the influx of people from the USSR is seen as “aliah”, Jews immigrating into Israel according to the Law of Return while bringing their entire family over and establishing a new home here, whereas the Thai and Filipino workers did not immigrate to Israel but simply came to work, most of them leaving their families in their countries of origin.


Posted 25 February 2009

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