Schools not bombs?

Yesterday, in Jerusalem, the acting President of Israel Dalia Itzik offered some advice to Israel’s enemies on the 59th anniversary of Israel’s independence: “Our advice to you is replace your Katyushas and Qassams with computers and loving education, the smile of a boy that has a future, and neighbourliness”.

On the same day, in Gaza, Hamas’s militant wing fired a volley of shells and mortars against Israeli targets in the Negev. No Israeli was hurt. The attack was significant, however, because this is the first time that a Hamas-affiliated group has fired rockets since an informal ceasefire was agreed between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert in November. The ceasefire must hold if political negotiations are to resume; it is now, at the very least, under heavy strain. Later in the evening, a twelve year old boy was killed in crossfire between rival clans in Gaza.

Most Palestinians would love to be able to provide their child with a computer and a “loving education”, not to mention “the smile of a boy who has a future”. Most Israelis, too, would like to see Gaza develop in a more sustainable and peaceful direction – either because they are disturbed by the constant violence that affects Palestinians like the twelve year old who died yesterday, or because they realise that the chaos inside Gaza represents an increasing threat to Israel.

The head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last year that the quantity of weapons and explosives smuggled into the Gaza Strip through tunnels from the Sinai since September 2005 is larger than the total amount imported since the Six Day War. Currently, he said, “anybody who wants to smuggle something through the Philadelphi route [the Egypt-Gaza border] can apparently do so”. After three to five years of this kind of weapons transfer, Diskin warned, Israel would face a threat similar to that which it faced from south Lebanon.

Weapons are not the only commodity being smuggled into Gaza through tunnels. Because the formal crossing points into and out of Gaza are almost always closed, people living in the Strip cannot export their produce (tomatoes, strawberries, flowers and so on) or import goods (like computers, for example) through them. As a consequence, everything – cigarettes, guns, televisions, women, explosives – is brought in underground. While the formal economy of Gaza has ground almost to a halt, the smuggling business is extremely lucrative: it probably costs around $10,000 to rent a tunnel for an hour. It will always be very difficult to keep the tunnels closed when there is no cheaper way to import and export goods. And while the tunnels remain open, what goes into Gaza is out of anyone’s control.

To stabilise Gaza, for the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians, a more reliable way must be found to sustain the formal economy of Gaza by regulating imports and exports. Fortunately Condoleezza Rice has already done this: in November 2005, she personally negotiated the Agreement on Movement and Access between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This Agreement was designed to meet both Palestinian economic needs and Israeli security concerns. The AMA was never implemented, however, partly because the Israeli side appears to be trying to use its effective control over all the Gaza crossings to “squeeze” the Palestinian population to cease rocket attacks and release the captured Israeli soldier Shalit.

It is not in Israel’s interests to leave the Gaza economy in the control of those who allow weapons to be smuggled into the Strip, along with everything else. Dahlia Itzik’s “advice” would seem a little more realistic, and a little less patronising, if Israel were doing more to implement the AMA.

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About Elizabeth Sellwood

Elizabeth Sellwood is non-resident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. She is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has worked for several years in the Middle East region. She was Special Assistant to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2005-07, and prior to this she worked for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory. Between 2001-03 Elizabeth was an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK House of Commons. She also worked for Oxfam in the Balkans in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, and in 1995-99 held research positions at Chatham House and Cambridge University.