|Gaza's residents largely depend on foreign aid as Israel's blockade has ruined its economy [Reuters]
With the recent agreement to swap 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel may have lost one of its key justifications for its blockade against the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli policy of actively laying siege to the territory, tacitly supported by Egypt under the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, has been in place since Hamas violently took over power from Fatah in 2007 after it had won elections a year earlier.
The blockade has taken on many shapes and forms over the years. It has been tightened, eased and tightened again, but the changes made - usually a result of international pressure - have been largely cosmetic.
There is no shortage of food in Gaza and recent developments have even triggered what could be described as a 'construction boom'.
But the blockade on the territory is still very much in place, from land, air and sea.
Contrary to popular belief, the blockade is not only something that has occurred for the last five years.
Israel has been limiting travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since the first Intifada in the beginning of the 1990s, a strategy that has had far-reaching consequences for Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
Under the widely ignored Oslo accords of 1993, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are defined as two territories of a single unit, between which Palestinians should be allowed to move freely and trade goods without restrictions.
However, despite recent changes in Israel’s restrictive measures, this utopian situation looks further from reach than ever before.
Israel had been using "security" as a pretext for restricting movement of people and goods between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank long before the current siege was put in place, states the non-governmental organisation Gisha.
For example, since 2000, Israel has occasionally allowed football players to exit Gaza, but has continued to prohibit Gaza students from attending universities in the occupied West Bank.
These and other restrictions were tightened over time to reach their peak with the placement of the full siege in 2007.
With the help of the freedom of information act, an Israeli law, Gisha recently managed to expose official documents given to the Israeli army, detailing who, and what, is allowed in and out of the Gaza Strip.
These guidelines go into extensive details, painting a clear picture of the limitations that people in the Gaza Strip have been, and partly continue to be, subjected to until today.
At the height of the siege, no Gazans were permitted to exit the Strip through the Erez crossing, with the exception of a small number of high-placed businessmen, people in need of specialised medical care, and certain other "exceptional" cases.
This also applied to residents of Gaza who intended to move to the West Bank for family unification purposes.
The "exceptional" cases under this restriction applied only to first-degree relatives who were chronically ill, elderly, or orphaned under the age of 16 with no one to care for them in the Gaza Strip.
In its efforts to punish Hamas and other armed groups, the documents shed light on how Israel fine-tuned the siege, with an aim to hurt Gazans but not let the situation there to reach "humanitarian crisis-levels".
Since 2007 and until 2010 Israel allowed only those goods into the territory that it deemed as "vital for the survival of the civilian population".
|Netanyahu said that stopping the Gaza flotilla was needed to "prevent creation of an Iranian port on Mediterranean" [Reuters]
For example, hummus was considered a vital good, whereas hummus topped with pine nuts or mushrooms was banned.
Items such as shoes, paper, and even coffee and tea were also placed on the banned list.
All goods that Israel deemed "dual-use" - material that could be used for both manufacturing weapons and for construction - such as wood, cement and iron were banned, despite the dire need for these goods for reconstruction following Israel'sl 2008-2009 war on Gaza.
The quantities of goods allowed in were calculated using mathematical formulas that determined the level of daily consumption of each of the basic products, based on data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, multiplied by the population of the Gaza Strip.
Export of goods is virtually banned, with limited exceptions, such as a seasonal harvest of agricultural goods.
With this policy, Israel maintains that the siege of Gaza does not fall under "collective punishment" as it considered itself to be fulfilling the minimum requirements that an occupier is obliged with under the fourth Geneva Convention rules.
In the aftermath of the disastrous Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla of May 2010, in which nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara, Israel eased some of the restrictions.
In response to the international outcry over the raid, Israel published a list of items not permitted into Gaza "that is limited to weapons and war material, including problematic dual-use items".
"All items not on this list will be permitted to enter Gaza," Israel said.
In reality, little has changed. Most of the material that is needed for reconstruction comes in through the hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt.
Israel currently issues about 3,000 permits per month to people who want to leave Gaza, which only amounts to little over half of one per cent of the number of people who crossed the border at Erez in September 2000.
In addition to the land blockade, Israel has maintained its naval cordon on Gaza, where attempts by flotillas to break the siege, such as the Mavi Marmara, have been halted in international waters.
The Israeli government, during the period of prime minister Ehud Olmert and under current prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has dismissed the flotilla attempts as provocations with the sole purpose of trying to break the blockade, rather than to bring aid.
"This was not the Love Boat, it was a hate boat," Netanyahu said, when defending the raid on the 2010 Gaza flotilla.
"These weren't pacifists, these weren't peace activists. They were violent supporters of terrorism."
Netanyahu claims that stopping the flotillas is needed to prevent the creation of an "Iranian port on the Mediterranean".
Following the Mavi Marmara raid, Israel’s security cabinet issued a statement confirming that all goods bound for Gaza would continue to be inspected at the port of Ashdod, prior to entering Gaza.
Under the 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement fishermen are permitted to sail out to fishing grounds up 37km offshore; however, Israel only allows them to reach to 5.6km, a restriction Israel says is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks and smuggling.
The prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas has sparked new hope that the siege on Gaza could be lifted.
It has even been suggested that the lifting of the siege would be part of the deal that was struck between both parties.
Since his capture in 2006, Israeli politicians had increasingly presented Shalit’s case as a reason for not lifting the blockade.
|Former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert had also linked lifting of Gaza blockade to Shalit's release [GALLO/GETTY]
In February 2009, Olmert, who was prime minister at the time, said: "We want first to resolve the Shalit issue and then will look into the reopening of crossings and the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip."
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, in June 2010 linked the lifting of the siege, with both the release of Shalit, and "the renunciation of terrorism" by Gaza’s leaders.
"The day Palestinian leaders in Gaza renounce terrorism, release Gilad Shalit, stop firing missiles and halt their attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers, the continuity of the security cordon imposed on the Gaza Strip won't be needed," he said.
A recent flare-up of violence, in which 11 Palestinians and an Israeli were killed in a fresh spate of tit-for-tat rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes, has dashed the momentum created by the prisoner exchange.
Moreover, with the exchange, Israel has released hundreds of what is sees as high-security prisoners into the Gaza Strip, perhaps giving proponents of the siege a stronger case for keeping the strict border controls in place.