Ed Cairns (right), Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on humanitarian advocacy, on the prospects for peace and progress in Gaza
Two weeks after the ceasefire. One week after Palestine became a UN ‘non-member observer state’. Where are we now? As Jabr Qudeih, a local aid worker in Gaza says: There’s a truce, but all the key issues, the crossings, fishing, farmland, are still to be negotiated. Unless there’s a fundamental political solution, everything is liable to collapse again.
The UN vote provided a symbol of hope for Palestinians. More importantly, the ceasefire created an opportunity for Israel, Hamas and the international community to potentially do what they dismally failed to do in 2009, after the last spike in conflict: to lift Gaza’s blockade for good, and somehow use that to restart a meaningful process towards peace.
Till that happens, people like Jabr will stay trapped in the pressure cooker that is Gaza. As one of Oxfam’s Gaza staff, Abdelrahman Elasssouli, said a few days ago: I want to feel free to travel, to visit my relatives outside Gaza and invite them here. This is like a dream for Palestinians living in Gaza.
The deaths and injuries on both sides have been shocking and a high cost for both communities to bear. And as a new Oxfam paper, Beyond ceasefire: Ending the blockade of Gaza, points out today, behind them lies the protracted impact of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Even before November’s surge in violence, 80 % of Palestinians in Gaza relied on humanitarian aid, and almost 50 % of youth were unemployed. Since the blockade began in 2007, nearly 60 % of businesses had closed, and another 25 % had laid-off 80 % of their staff. And Israel’s ‘buffer zone’ inside Gaza has severely restricted access to farming land and fishing grounds alike.
None of this has been a recipe for peace. Like the fear and insecurity that grip Israeli civilians as a result of the rockets fired into southern Israel, Gaza’s economic decline and poverty is extraordinarily corrosive of any realistic prospect of peace. To many, Israel’s occupation is the fundamental cause of the problem; and of course that is true. But after decades of conflict, it is also the vicious cycle of violence feeding fear and hostility on both sides. And Gaza’s seemingly endless suffering is at its heart.
The walkway from Gaza to Israel at the Erez crossing
So where is there hope? Well, it potentially lies in the ceasefire and the continuing negotiations, brokered by Egypt, between Hamas and Israel to build on it. In Palestinians demanding that their leaders settle their differences, as well as demanding freedom from Israel’s occupation, and a permanent end to the blockade .
And in the fact that Israel, like Palestine, is anything but monolithic. Its politicians and people have diverse views on everything from Iran to the national budget. Some are convinced that the blockade is necessary for Israel’s security. Others argue that it damages Israel’s international reputation, while failing to stop weapons being smuggled into Gaza. Indeed, with the blockade in place Palestinians have resorted to using tunnels to get products in and out to Egypt, a strong economic incentive to maintain the tunnels that are also used to smuggle arms.
In the ceasefire negotiations, the government of Israel agreed to consider ‘opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods’. Despite no clear agreement between the two sides, according to reports on the ground some farmers have already begun returning to their fields even quite near the Israeli security fence. And the post ceasefire agreement may allow Palestinians in Gaza to reclaim almost one third of their agricultural land
No-one should expect Israel’s policy to change overnight. But there do seem to be signs from Israel’s leaders of some potentially important shifts. And that means the international community has more opportunity to help than it did in 2009.
So what can outsiders do? Well, they can press all sides to live up to their agreements, the new post-ceasefire one, and build on the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which actually worked for more than a year up to 2007. And they can provide international resources for effective monitoring that could give both Israelis and Palestinians the confidence to make (and keep) a deal. For instance, they could offer more of the sophisticated x-ray technology that the US and the Netherlands have already provided, to reassure Israel that all crossings, not just some, really can be open and secure at the same time. Those and other practical ideas are in today’s new Oxfam paper.
A few days ago, another colleague in Gaza, Ghada Snunu, said: Since the ceasefire I really hope that the future of Gaza will be different. I hope we can visit Palestinians in the West Bank and they can come here. I want Palestinians in Gaza to feel strong enough to follow their dreams.
Will that be a more realistic prospect in 2013 than it has been? Let’s hope so. Now is certainly the time to try.