|The blockade on basic foodstuffs was designed to encourage Gazans to overthrow Hamas [GETTY]|
In February 2006, following Hamas’ electoral victory, a top advisor to Ehud Olmert, the then Israeli prime minister, Dov Weisglass, described the essence of Israel’s Gaza policy.
“It’s like a meeting with a dietitian,” Weisglass said. “We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death.”
Although any Gazan will quickly point out that the blockade on the movement of goods – and people – into and out of Gaza long predates the election of Hamas, as the years have passed the exact date of the siege has often been, for reasons of political expedience, recast to coincide with the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
Israel characterises the blockade as “economic warfare” targeting Hamas and its constituents.
‘No humanitarian crisis’
According to government documents that have surfaced in response to a lawsuit before Israel’s high court, “the limitation on the transfer of goods is a central pillar in the means at the disposal of the state of Israel in the armed conflict between it and Hamas”.
A key white paper, entitled Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip – Red Lines, meticulously details the minimum caloric intake required, based on age and sex, to keep Gazans hovering just above malnutrition levels, and specifies the corresponding grams and calories of each type of food allowed into Gaza.
The existence of the so-called Red Lines document has been known for several years, but was only confirmed by Israel during recent court proceedings.
The blockade policy is overseen by a unit of Israel’s defence ministry, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).
The policy slogan, which has been repeated at several COGAT meetings attended by Israeli journalists, states: “No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.”
While the blockade on basic foodstuffs and essential infrastructural requirements was designed by Israel to encourage Palestinians to overthrow their elected government, many signs point to it having the opposite effect.
“If anything, [the siege] helps Hamas consolidate itself as a ruling party and exercise increasingly effective government,” said Yezid Sayigh in a recent Gaza study-trip report for Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.
‘The organic farm’
|Hamas has taken steps to mitigate the impact of the siege on food production [EPA]|
Beyond the well-documented tunnel trade running under the Gaza-Egypt border, Hamas has taken concrete steps to mitigate the impacts of the siege and further its political administration in the coastal strip.
Hamas’ agriculture minister, Muhammad al-Agha, has issued a ten-year plan designed to side-step the blockade by increasing local food production and agricultural self-sufficiency in Gaza.
Entitled The Plan for 2020, the document was vetted by 150 academics and researchers, according to the agriculture ministry, and looks to respond to the challenges imposed by Israel’s blockade with local initiatives.
For example, Israel’s ban on fertilisers has pushed Hamas to explore processing sewage, which has been pumped, often untreated, into the sea off Gaza since the failure of treatment facilities that are short of banned parts and supplies.
“When Israel started preventing the agricultural requirements, we moved to organic agriculture to address our needs.
“What we have done is [implement] model projects for the transformation of agricultural or domestic waste into organic fertilisers which we use then in agriculture,” said al-Agha, who is also a professor of environmental science at the Islamic University in Gaza.
Thus far, some 1,000 dunams of land has been fertilised in this manner under the pilot project, according to the ministry.
“What we have tried to do is change the culture of our people gradually to organic agriculture, organic food and organic production,” said al-Agha.
The plan, as The Economist recently described it, is to “turn Gaza into one big organic farm”.
In previous years, Gaza’s export-focused cash-cropping left the agricultural sector vulnerable. As the strategic plan notes, export agriculture also involved “large, consumptive use of fresh water and other inputs,” and left scarce water resources contaminated by chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
According to a recent United Nations report, the recovery of the agricultural sector in Gaza is crucial in order to “reinstate the local population’s former access to fresh foods, including fruit and vegetables, eggs, fresh meat and fish, which humanitarian agencies traditionally do not offer through the aid pipeline”.
But the agricultural base that Hamas has to work with is desperately limited by an Israeli-enforced “buffer zone” inside Gaza’s fenced off border.
One-third of Gaza’s arable land is inaccessible to farmers and herders, according to UN data.
In some areas, this no-go zone is two kilometres deep. Nowhere is it less than 500 metres from the border and everywhere it is enforced by live ammunition.
A report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs notes that the buffer zone “contains rain-fed crops including wheat, barley, beans and various vegetables, as well as olives, almonds and citrus trees. Most of the Gaza Strip’s animal production is concentrated in the zone, which also contains important infrastructure such as wells and roads”.
‘Absorbing’ Israeli attacks
While the US and Israeli-backed caretaker government of Salam Fayyad in the West Bank seeks to meet Western demands in order to maintain its foreign aid flow, Hamas in Gaza has, in many ways, stayed its course.
A recent field report by Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace stated bluntly: “There is [one] political actor that urges Palestinians to worry far less about currying favour with foreigners and instead take matters into their own hands – Hamas.”
Khaled Hroub, a leading expert on the movement at the University of Cambridge, sees the blockade as just the latest example of Hamas’ ability to “absorb” Israel’s attacks to emerge in many ways even stronger.
“What we are seeing now in the Gaza blockade is just another manifestation of the same phenomena that we have witnessed throughout the history of Hamas over the past 20 years,” said Hroub, who is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice.
“We have seen them manoeuvre their way out [of numerous Israeli challenges] and present themselves again as more disciplined and stronger.”
Indeed, of the many consequences of Israel’s blockade, few appear to match Israel’s strategic intent.