Unlivable: Israel’s Efforts to Prevent a Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

July 15, 2019

by: Ilse Strauss, Assistant Editor

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In August 2012 the United Nations (UN) published a report painting a picture of the dismal future awaiting the people of Gaza. Come 2020, the document said, the coastal enclave would be unlivable.

In the seven years since the UN tabled its report, the situation deteriorated almost beyond predictions. Some 2.1 million people live in the 141 square mile (365 square kilometer) Strip. The World Bank describes Gaza’s economy as in “free fall.” Unemployment figures are at a record high of 52%. Energy supplies keep the lights burning for only two or three hours a day. Gaza’s aquifer—the source of 93% of the water consumption—is on the verge of collapse, which will leave millions without drinking water or the means to irrigate crops. Moreover, 24,000 cubic meters (6,340,130 gallons) of sewage seep into the aquifer daily. The bottom line: with months to go to 2020, Gaza already teeters on the edge of unlivable.

Many in the international community see Israel as the source of Gaza’s unlivable conditions—and thus the party responsible for the solutions to make the Strip livable again. Yet why the assumption that Israel shoulders the blame for the suffering of a people it doesn’t rule, living outside its borders under the governance of a terrorist regime that seeks its destruction? Why the belief that Israel should fix what it didn’t break? And perhaps more importantly, why does Israel continue to make an effort, regardless?

Paradise Lost?

Gaza wasn’t always on the verge of catastrophe. It used to be famous for its white beaches and bustling souks (Arab markets) overflowing with local produce. Israelis and Palestinians shopped side-by-side, while Palestinians from Gaza worked kibbutz (collective community) fields and Israeli factory floors alongside their Jewish neighbors. The downward spiral started in 2005, when Israel disengaged from Gaza, leaving the Strip under Palestinian control. Still, Gazans remained free to enter and exit Israel. A year later the Palestinians went to the polls to pick a parliament. Fatah—Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s political party—and terror group Hamas received the highest percentage of votes, resulting in a unity government. Yet Hamas had bigger ambitions than sharing power. In June 2007, the terror group staged a coup in Gaza, executing various Fatah officials and driving the rest from the Strip. The result? A rift in Palestinian leadership with a Fatah stronghold in Judea and Samaria, where Abbas governs 2.5 million Palestinians as the PA president, while Hamas rules 2.1 million Palestinians in Gaza—and a bitter feud between the two factions with no reconciliation in sight.

Who’s Responsible?

“Who’s responsible for the people of Gaza?” asks Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Col. (Res.) Grisha Yakubovich, former head of the Civilian Department of COGAT—the unit responsible for implementing Israel’s civilian policy and security coordination in the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria. “Who should provide electricity, water, a healthcare system and jobs? In every other country, the answer is the government. Why not in Gaza? As the government, Hamas is responsible. They wanted to rule. Why doesn’t anybody hold them to that?”

Hamas doesn’t lack the necessary resources, explains Yakubovich. Until 2013, the terror entity pocketed an annual tax income of US $350 million from goods smuggled from Egypt. Moreover, Hamas taxes the some 1,000 truckloads of goods entering Gaza from Israel every day. Together with the funds from international donors, the revenue can be used for the people’s welfare. Instead, Hamas invests in the destruction of Israel.

Regardless, can Israel sit by as 2.1 million people suffer? Rushing to Gaza’s aid is, however, more complicated than merely offering solutions. Ultimately, Israel’s ability to help depends on two warring Palestinian entities: Hamas and the PA.

Hamas militants in Gaza

Biting the Hand that Wants to Feed

“Hamas is a terror organization trying to destroy us,” reminds Yakubovich. “They launch rockets, dig tunnels and use snipers.” Moreover, even if Israel sets aside Hamas’s objective of annihilation, the terror group may very well use Israel’s aid efforts for destruction.

Following the UN’s 2012 report, Yakubovich negotiated with the European Union to build a purification plant in Gaza to address the water problem, create jobs and boost the economy. “The EU had half a billion dollars ready, but had two conditions.” First, Israel had to commit to never striking the plant, regardless if Hamas used it as a rocket launching pad. Second, Israel would provide the electricity to power the plant. “We agreed to both conditions, but also had a condition: a commitment from Hamas that they wouldn’t use the electricity we provided to build rockets to fire into Israel. The EU said no deal.”

“Israel wants the people of Gaza to live decent lives,” explains Yakubovich. However, can Hamas put the welfare of its people above its hatred for Israel?

Who’s the Boss?

Israel and Hamas are not the only two role-players in the fate of Gaza. “Let’s say we reach an agreement,” Yakubovich holds. “Who would be really angry? PA president Abbas,” head of the bona fide Palestinian government. “If we solve Gaza’s problems by negotiating with Hamas without the president, the outcome is a three-state solution. The political reality is very complicated. That’s the problem.”

Moreover, Abbas still seethes from the humiliating defeat in Gaza and works the looming humanitarian disaster to his advantage. When Yakubovich approached the PA in 2012 and suggested that Israel create the infrastructure to send more electricity to Gaza to power up a water treatment plant, the PA refused to foot the bill for its people’s energy needs. “I asked: ‘What about the crisis? What about your people?’ They answered: ‘We don’t care. It’s not our problem.’”

Last year, Abbas cut the electricity supply to Gaza by 15%, closing the cash coffers that paid to keep the lights burning and the water running. His thinking is clear: A humanitarian crisis will bring Hamas to its knees. They will beg the PA to come back and Abbas will return a hero—while the people of Gaza pay for this feud.

The Solution   

Whether Gaza faces a humanitarian collapse seems to be a choice—and the choice isn’t Israel’s.

“Hamas wants to be legitimized as the entity ruling as the presidency of the Palestinian people,” continues Yakubovich. Following the coup in Gaza, Hamas controlled a geographical area for the first time since its inception. “Will they give up on this achievement? Never! They’d rather commit suicide. This guides their choices, actions and strategy.” The PA, on the other hand, is equally determined to regain the governance it once held at any cost.

While the two warring Palestinian entities battle for power and recognition, their people are caught in the crossfire—and Gaza is becoming unlivable.

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