Violence is escalating in the Middle East. Hamas is sending fire balloons, Israel is exacerbating the already catastrophic situation in Gaza with collective penalties.
It is only 400 meters as the crow flies between the small community of Netiv HaAsara in southern Israel and the Palestinian city of Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip. In between there is a kilometer-long barrier consisting of fences, guards, sensors and buffer zones. On the Israeli side, the muezzin can be heard from afar, asking for prayer. Roni Keidar, mid-70s, knows the melody well. She has lived in Netiv HaAsara with her family for almost 40 years.
The last few days have been unbearable, she says on the phone. Rockets have hit, the village has burned, people are under pressure. For the second week in a row, balloons with incendiary bottles or explosives fly across the border into Israel, setting off fires that damage farmland. On Thursday night Israel shelled targets of Hamas, the militant government force in Gaza. On Tuesday, Hamas fired a rocket for the second time this week. Two girls in Ashkelon were lightly injured while running to the bomb shelter.
“I see the balloons and the scorched earth here and write to my friends in Gaza on Whatsapp: ‘I know what to expect tomorrow.’” By this, Keidar means the retaliatory attacks by the Israeli army, which are shooting at targets in Gaza after the ongoing attacks. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warned Hamas on Tuesday of war if the situation did not calm down.
The renewed outbreak of violence comes at a time full of symbolism: It was 15 years ago that the houses of almost 9,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza were evacuated in August 2005 on the initiative of Israel’s then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Although Hamas has ruled the area internally since 2007, Israel controls all external affairs: the border crossing for goods deliveries, the airspace, the fishing zone, and entry and exit to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.
The border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is also closed to deliveries of goods and only opened sporadically to people, which is why Cairo is accused of being jointly responsible for the blockade. Common security interests are behind the Israeli-Egyptian alliance.
By 2005, Israel had controlled around a quarter of the densely populated Gaza Strip through military bases and 21 Jewish settlements. Palestinian suffragette Andlib Adwan remembers the summer of 2005. “People danced in the streets and thousands fell on the beach because so many had never seen the sea.” Parts of the coast of the Gaza Strip were then under Israeli control.
“Suddenly I was also able to visit my family in the Rafah refugee camp without waiting for hours at the checkpoint,” she says.
The 55-year-old was born as one of 13 children in the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Gaza. Today she heads the Community Media Center in Gaza City. Like Adwan, much of Gaza’s population comes from families who became refugees in the war with Israel in 1948 and found refuge in the Gaza Strip.
As early as 2005, it was clear to Adwan that the unilateral withdrawal was a maneuver by the Israeli government that was linked to strategic considerations. Control of Gaza and the settlements there had been an economic, military and diplomatic burden on Israel. A few months later, in the winter of 2006, Hamas emerged from an election as the strongest force in Gaza and the West Bank and in 2007 forcibly took control of Gaza.
“They claimed they scared the Israelis and that was why they left,” Adwan recalls. In the same year that the settlements were evacuated, the Israeli government also made space for thousands of new settlers in the West Bank – an area that was easier to connect to Israel in the long term than the overpopulated Gaza Strip.
“Ever since the occupation of Gaza in 1967, the strip was economically and infrastructurally dependent on Israel and the West Bank and was barely allowed to develop economic structures,” explains Sari Bashi. The lawyer for human rights founded the Israeli organization Gisha in 2005, which advocates freedom of movement for Palestinians.
While hundreds of thousands from Gaza were working in the low-wage sector in Israel every day before the second Intifada in 2000, today only a fraction of the almost two million residents with a business permit or on a humanitarian basis are allowed to enter Israel and the West Bank.
The Israeli government justifies the ongoing blockade against terrorist attacks. When Hamas fires rockets or sends incendiary balloons, as in the latest round of escalation, Israel uses the tactic of collective punishment: last week, in response to attacks, the only border crossing for goods deliveries to Gaza was closed, the fishing zone off the coast was completely closed, and fuel deliveries were prohibited. The latter means for the people in Gaza that instead of eight to twelve hours of electricity a day, they have to get by with just four.
Bashi cannot see any logic in this strategy of deterrence: “Hamas is clearly violating international law with its actions against Israeli civilians,” she says, “but how good is the Israeli citizens who are being shot when the people of Gaza are no longer there fishing and not allowed to export anything? What if they don’t have electricity?”
Terror does not take place in a social vacuum, but is the result of a political stranglehold. As long as the blockade is not loosened, the catastrophic situation cannot change, says Bashi. “Why does Israel allow Gaza to export tomatoes and eggplants, but not strawberries and flowers? What does that have to do with security?”
Instead, Israel pursues a policy of separation between Gaza and the West Bank. Gaza people are not allowed to study or become resident in the West Bank. Bashi is convinced that Israel wants to control as much territory as possible in the West Bank with as few Palestinians as possible. This is not about security, but about creeping annexation.
Andlib Adwan had to experience the politics of separation first hand. In order to stand up for the rights of Palestinian women in a patriarchal society, she began to study gender studies in the West Bank in 1999. A year later, with the beginning of the second Intifada, Israel closed its borders. Gaza students were no longer allowed to study at universities in Ramallah or Bethlehem.
Since 2007, Adwan has instead concentrated on teaching women and young people to document their stories using visual media. “Women suffer twice from the situation here. You have to get by with a minimum of money, privacy and personal safety,” she says. Thousands of families lost their homes in the 2014 war against Israel, many women and their husbands.
“Nobody cared about dignity or privacy, they were often treated like animals. Some had to marry relatives of their husbands’ families just so that they could be remarried quickly. Nevertheless, the people in Gaza do not primarily blame Hamas, but rather the Israeli blockade, for their situation.
For Roni Keidar on the Israeli side of the barrier, the duality of the situation is everyday life. “On the one hand, I don’t want to justify terrorism. On the other hand: What motivates people to do something like that?” In Israel, humanistic attitudes like Keidars are often dismissed as naive. Her own family is also critical of the Palestinians in Gaza, says Keidar.
But when the rocket alarm went off again a few months ago and Keidar’s eleven-year-old grandson hid in the corner until his mother calmed him down, the boy said: “Maybe they should all listen to Grandma at last,” Keidar says proudly.