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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 Reality of the Blockade

Hamas’ Position

The Position of Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority

The Egyptian position

The Israeli Stance

The Position of the U.S. Administration

Efforts to Break the Siege

Future Scenarios


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 Reality of the Blockade

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.

   Hamas’ Position

Hamas and its government have sought relentlessly to make breaches in the blockade imposed on GS, both politically and economically, by taking the following measures:

– 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 Position of Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority

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

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

[to Mursi’s efforts] by influential voices within the Egyptian government, such as from the intelligence services and senior pillars in the state, which adduce legal considerations related to the Camp David Accords and other political reasons fearing that Israel may completely disengage from GS and push it completely into Egypt’s lap.

Furthermore, there is opposition by the PA and Fatah, while the Egyptian president seems unwilling to make a qualitative leap in the light of severe internal challenges and disorganized political cards that are being gradually rearranged. All this has prevented Egypt from making a final decision about lifting the blockade, limiting its efforts so far to improving the humanitarian situation at the crossing, and allowing in more humanitarian aid, pending internal Palestinian reconciliation that would relieve Egyptian policy-making, and create a strong platform for fully lifting the blockade on the GS.

   The Israeli Stance

Israel is clearly concerned about the possibility of the special relationship between Hamas and the new Egyptian leadership being taken advantage of to take a decision to lift the blockade and open the Rafah crossing which would be turned into a commercial crossing, in addition to being a conduit for travellers.

Although Israel has for long argued for absconding from GS’s economic and humanitarian burdens, by dumping them on Egypt, it believes at the same time that lifting the blockade without coordination with it, would deal serious damage to the Israeli policy that uses the blockade to blackmail the Hamas government politically, and would damage also the standing of the PA in light of the Palestinian schism.

   The Position of the U.S. Administration

It is no secret that the U.S. administration is aligned with the Israeli position in imposing a blockade on the GS, until Hamas complies with the conditions of the Quartet. It is no secret either that the U.S. administration is providing most of the international cover for the siege on GS, which it pledges to keep in place and protect against any attempts to break or breach it.

It was thus not surprising that the U.S. administration intervened blatantly to head off efforts by the Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi to lift the siege, with the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following up on the official Egyptian position to ensure that it remains the same.

   Efforts to Break the Siege

Hamas and its government do not count much on any political breakthrough taking place in the relations with the regional and international order, which has sponsored the blockade on the GS, in a manner that would allow Hamas to make real strides towards lifting or easing the blockade.

Hamas and its government have no choice but to wager on the transformations and revolutions that continue to unfold in the Arab world, and the hopes of change they carry with them. Hamas finds it imperative as well to focus on the Qatari and Egyptian roles to rescue GS from its various dilemmas, given the excellent relations it has with these two countries.

First: The Qatari role: Qatar plays an important role in the efforts to rebuild GS, where this Gulf nation has announced its willingness to contribute up to US$ 250 million, which subsequently rose to US$ 400 million, when a Qatari delegation arrived in GS recently. The Qatari grant would cover rebuilding infrastructure in GS, as well as various types of aid and development projects.

Second: the Egyptian role: This role is manifested in [Hamas’s] hopes to secure the approval of the Egyptian authorities to open the Rafah crossing without restrictions, and establish a free trade zone on the Egyptian border with the GS. On the other hand, there are fears of dwindling Iranian support for GS, either because Iran itself is suffering from an embargo and international Western sanctions or because of the difference over the Syrian conflict and the Arab uprisings.

Nevertheless, more hopes are now pinned on a growing Turkish role in support of the Palestinian issue and for lifting the blockade of GS.

   Future Scenarios

The next few months will bring with them one of the following four scenarios:

The first scenario, or the stalemate scenario, would spell the continuation of the blockade as it stands without any improvement in economic conditions.

According to this scenario, the Egyptian policy is expected to continue along the same lines without having any markedly different response to the issues of the Rafah crossing and the free trade zone. This means that movement at the crossings will remain unchanged, while goods will continue to flow into GS through the tunnels and the Karam Abu Salem crossing at the same pace, without any change. The suffering of the people of GS in this scenario would continue.

The second scenario, or the optimistic scenario, would see a marked improvement in the existing economic situation and living conditions of the people of GS. Accordingly, there would be an improvement in the flow of goods through the Karam Abu Salem crossing, and a detente in the economic relations with Egypt, whether through easing restrictions at the Rafah crossing on exports and imports, or by establishing a free trade zone between the two sides. In parallel, there would be a palpable improvement in the infrastructure and electricity, fuel, water and communication services.

The third scenario, or the pessimistic scenario, would see the blockade on the GS be continued and tightened further. In this scenario, it will not be possible to establish the free trade zone project, while efforts for internal Palestinian reconciliation would be suspended. All this will result in a worse economic situation, where poverty and unemployment rise, and the productive capacity of economic enterprises would falter, with most of them forced to close down.

The fourth scenario or the ideal scenario, would see internal Palestinian schism end, and a national consensus government formed, with the blockade on GS lifted completely. According to this scenario, the donor countries may agree to provide financial and political support to the consensus government; spending and revenues would be unified between the WB and GS; the free flow of goods through the various crossings would be guaranteed; and a trade agreement for the Rafah crossing would be signed.

A close examination of current conditions and available information makes the most likely scenario in the coming months to be either the stalemate or the optimistic one, or a mixture of both where positive developments would take place in conjunction with the stalemate, as Muhammad Mursi consolidates his rule. This may include measures to ease the restrictions on the Rafah crossing, in parallel with more support and efforts to break the siege following the step taken by the State of Qatar.

But it may be premature for him to agree to the free trade zone, or take strong measures that may invite hostile steps by Israel and the U.S. in response.

Nevertheless, this scenario is not the inevitable fate of the Palestinians. Over the medium term, a major breakthrough may happen that would advance other scenarios, including the fourth “ideal” scenario, should internal Palestinian reconciliation see the light and should the blockade be lifted.

Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Mu‘min Bseeso for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.

The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 10/11/2012