As the United Nations considers investigating this week's Israeli ship raid Arab leaders are calling for end to the Gaza blockade which was at the core of this week's conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended his military's actions and says lifting the blockade would only open Gaza to Iranian-backed terrorism. Sari Bashi is Executive Director, of the Israeli nonprofit organization GISHA or the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. The group is comprised of Arabs and Jews who offer legal assistance and public advocacy to Palestinians in occupied territories. Reporter Cecily Hilleary asked her about the history of the blockade and whether it has achieved its goal of ensuring security in Gaza.
Listen to the full interview with Sari Bashi:
A: We actually call what Israel is doing in Gaza a "closure" and not a "blockade." Our position is that Gaza is occupied territory, and Israel is the occupying power, already controlled the borders prior to June 2007, and after Hamas took over internal control of the Gaza Strip, Israel closed Gaza's borders nearly hermetically, allowing just a trickle of humanitarian goods to enter Gaza and blocking travel of persons almost entirely. At the time, Israel declared its intention to put pressure on Hamas by imposing measures against the civilian population. They call it "economic warfare." The policy is designed to cripple Gaza's economy by blocking the flow of goods necessary for economic or productive activity and also to prevent people from travelling as a means of pressure. Israel calls it "economic sanctions;" we call it "collective punishment."
Q: Where does one draw the line between sanctions, security concerns and collective punishment?
A: An economic sanction is something you impose on somebody who's [over there]. An economic sanction means you withhold something that is your sovereign right. You choose not to trade, and if you're good enough, you can get a whole bunch of countries to choose not to trade. For example, the U.S. now is trying to persuade a whole bunch of countries to choose not to trade with Iran.
Gaza is different. Israel controls Gaza's borders, so Israel is unilaterally preventing every country in the world from trading with Gaza and then it, itself, is limiting what goes into Gaza to just a trickle. International law imposes responsibility in cases where Israel exercises control. So as the occupying power, Israel has the right to inspect goods coming into Gaza for security reasons. What it doesn't have the right to do is to prevent completely civilian goods from entering Gaza.
Q: What are Israel's obligations to Gazans?
A: Under the Geneva Convention, Israel has an obligation to allow normal life to take place in the Gaza Strip. In effect, wherever Israel exercises control, it must take responsibility for the effects of that control. So that means if Israel controls the borders and controls who comes in and out, it must make sure that control is commensurate with the rights of people in Gaza to access schools, to access jobs, to engage in productive, dignified work.
Q: The United States government and relief organizations pledged billions of dollars to help reconstruct Gaza after the military incursions by Israel. Has any of this money got through and been spent?
A: Very little of it. The U.N. has been trying to negotiate with the Israeli government to bring building materials to repair the damage from the 2008-2009 war. It has taken them nine months to negotiate a couple of truckloads that would allow them to complete a project that was already in the works. It's been extremely, extremely slow. Nine months for 151 housing units, and it stops there.
On the other hand, other people, including folks associated with the Hamas regime or just wealthy private actors, are able to bring in construction materials via underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. International organizations can't do that because they need receipts, and the only way to get receipts is to bring them in through the overland crossings, and Israel has banned construction materials.
Q: If so much stuff is coming through the tunnels and presumably weapons can come through the tunnels - why bother with the closures then?
A: Well, I think that points out the illogic of the policy from a security point of view. It's very clear to everybody, including Israel and Egypt, that so long as the Israeli restrictions on goods coming in through the overland crossings are so tight, it's impossible to close the tunnels because Gaza would simply starve. Gaza would simply die.
Q: So what is your organization asking for?
A: We are asking Israel to change the closure policy and allow in the free passage of goods and people into and out of Gaza, subject only to legitimate security concerns. So, check - make sure that no weapons are coming in. Check for exports and make sure no bombs are coming out. But that's all.