It is difficult to say for sure that the Gaza Strip (GS) will manage to break free from the blockade during the next phase. The people of GS felt very optimistic about their situation in the wake of Muhammad Mursi’s victory in the presidential election in Egypt. But the complexity of the circumstances and political realities locally, regionally and internationally, as well as the existence of a number of legal considerations, all act as hurdles to lifting the blockade, and impose a realistic approach on all players that does not allow for more than providing facilities and assistance while the future of the blockade on the GS is assessed. All these factors also push in the direction of having internal Palestinian reconciliation as the preferred path to rescue GS from the crisis created by the blockade, and all other crises that beleaguer it from all directions.
The GS has been living under a crippling siege for nearly six years, largely relying on the tunnels under the border with Egypt to secure its basic needs and necessities of life. These tunnels number around 1,200, of which the Egyptian troops have shut down up to 120 during the raids carried out in the three months after the attack on Egyptian soldiers in Sinai that took place on 5/8/2012. This is while bearing in mind that these tunnels are a lifeline for the GS, providing it with foodstuffs, medicines and building materials.
Although the occupation authorities have allowed goods to enter GS though the Karam Abu Salem commercial crossing recently, the list of prohibited items enforced at the crossing, which includes crucial and basic goods, has forced the people of GS to continue to rely on underground tunnels to import Egyptian goods, pending a final solution to the problem of providing GS with its needs away from the Israeli embargo.
The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Dr. Muhammad Mursi in the Egyptian presidential election revived hopes regarding the possibility of having the blockade on GS lifted. Indeed, the blockade was being made possible and was maintained by the deposed regime of Hosni Mubarak, in close alliance with the regional and international order hostile to Hamas and its government currently administrating the GS.
Therefore, the most important question revolves around the future of the blockade on GS, particularly in light of the proposals recently made by the Hamas government to the Egyptian leadership concerning the full opening of the Rafah crossing and the establishment of a free trade zone along the border between the two countries. Indeed, this would mean turning the page completely on the blockade, and ending once and for all the suffering of the people of GS, if the Egyptian leadership approves the proposals.
The GS continues to suffer greatly because of the blockade that has been in place for more than six years. Unemployment in GS in 2011 rose to nearly 30%, while the percentage of those whose income placed them below the poverty line reached 67%. Up to 85% of the people of GS rely with varying degrees on humanitarian aid provided by Arab and international aid and relief groups.
The most prominent features of the blockade are as follows:
– Israel controls the flow of goods at the crossings between the GS and Israel, where a large number of basic goods and materials required for the infrastructure in GS are prohibited from entering. This possibly has the biggest toll on the economic situation, living conditions and development and construction in GS.
– The Rafah crossing was closed for long periods of time after the internal Palestinian rift occurred, where the movement of passengers to and from GS was restricted, and travel bans instated on specific individuals, before the Egyptian authorities introduced partial improvements on the number of passengers allowed to cross, but without this ever meeting the required level that can meet the needs of the people of GS.
– There is no international recognition of the legitimacy of the Hamas-run government in GS, with this recognition being linked to the political role of the Islamist movement and its compliance with the conditions of the Quartet, amid a refusal to deal openly with the movement’s leaders and ministers. Nevertheless, this does not negate the fact that there have been secret contacts conducted by some European countries with leaders and officials in Hamas over the past years.
– Israel imposes a siege on GS by land, sea and air.
– Mobilizing Arab and Islamic support in the context of its political, media and popular discourse, and inviting political and parliamentarian delegations to visit GS.
– Taking advantage of the new Egyptian leadership after the Egyptian uprising, in terms of calling on it to lift the siege on GS and put an end to the suffering of its people, by fully opening the Rafah crossing, allowing in goods and establishing a free trade zone along the Egyptian border with GS.
– Influencing some Arab countries through successive visits and tours undertaken by leaders in Hamas, both within Palestine and in the Diaspora, and also by Hamas government ministers, including the visits by Prime Minister Haniyyah to Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and other countries.
– Hamas and its government continue to pin great hopes on the Egyptian stance, in terms of adopting the project for a free trade zone, and opening the Rafah crossing without restrictions in the near future.
The Palestinian National Authority (PA) in Ramallah and Fatah believe that lifting the siege on GS short of Palestinian reconciliation may render Hamas less enthusiastic about agreeing to the reconciliation, and may deny them (the PA and Fatah) the chance to regain control of GS. For this reason, the PA and Fatah have taken a tough stance on the tunnels in GS which they claim are illegal, and sought one way or another to block attempts by GS and its government to break the siege or rebuild GS under its direct supervision.
This stance became even more belligerent recently, following the plan proposed by Haniyyah’s government for the establishment of a free trade zone on the border between GS and Egypt. Indeed, leaders in the PA and Fatah believe that this plan, which is being discussed away from any meddling or influence by the PA, is dangerous and completely unacceptable, as it may perpetuate the split between GS and the West Bank (WB), and deal a blow to the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian national project.
The Egyptian position under the new leadership in Egypt remains ambiguous and fraught with difficulties and complexities over the issue of the blockade imposed on the GS.
President Muhammad Mursi, who comes from the same ideological background as the ruling faction in GS, pledged during his election campaign to lift the blockade on the Strip. He also gave reassurances to Hamas officials and ministers about the gradual lifting of the blockade, and took measures to ease the restrictions on the Rafah crossing, and provide fuel and electricity to GS.
But there are other factors at play, including international pressure, channelled through the U.S. position, and deep opposition