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Palestine - Visit to Gaza

Palestine - Visit to Gaza

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Published by David Shinn
David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, reflects on a June 13, 2010, visit to Gaza
David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, reflects on a June 13, 2010, visit to Gaza

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Published by: David Shinn on Jun 30, 2010
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Visit to Gaza June 20-21, 2010David H. Shinn
“One If by Land, Two If by Sea”
My entry into Gaza through the modern and highly secure Israelifacility at Erez on Gaza’s northern border with Israel was uneventful ascompared to Paul Revere’s midnight ride in 1775 when two lanterns in thesteeple of the Old North Church in Boston signaled that the British werearriving by sea. Nor did it have the drama surrounding the five vessel flotilladestined for Gaza preceding my border crossing by land. Revere’s ride,immortalized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, does, however, remindus of troubled times in widely separated parts of the world during differenteras. This was my first visit to Gaza. As a result, the account that followscertainly contains errors of omission and perhaps unwittingly some of co-mission.
The Gaza Strip
 The Gaza Strip is a narrow band of land about 45 kilometers long, 6kilometers wide at its narrowest point and 13 kilometers wide at the widestpoint. It constitutes 165 square kilometers, which makes it about the size oSingapore or the tiny Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Gaza is surrounded onthe north and east by Israel, on the southwest by Egypt and on the west bythe Mediterranean Sea. You can drive the length of Gaza in 45 minutes.More than 1.5 million people live in this densely populated land. Until 1948,Gaza was the administrative capital of a strip of land stretching from thePalestinian border with Egypt to Ashdod in present day Israel. As Israelexpanded its territory in 1948, it stopped at the borders of Gaza whichbecame a sanctuary for some 200,000 to 250,000 Palestinian refugeesexpelled from land that became part of Israel. In 1949, Egypt and Israelsigned an armistice establishing the current boundaries for Gaza. Theterritory holds no religious significance for the Jewish people.
The Governance Situation
Hamas firmly controls Gaza while the party of Fatah, led by PalestinianAuthority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, governs in the West Bank. Hamasis an acronym for an organization that translates as the Islamic ResistanceMovement. Hamas developed in 1987 from the Muslim Brotherhood, a
 
religious and political organization founded in Egypt. The senior Hamasfigure in Gaza today is Ismail Haniyeh, while its overall leader, Khaled Meshal,resides in exile in Syria. In 2006, Hamas surprisingly won the Palestiniangeneral legislative elections, defeating Fatah and setting the stage for apower struggle. In 2007, Hamas militarily routed remaining Fatah supportersin Gaza, killing many and forcing others to flee to the West Bank. This led toa de facto division of Gaza, led by Hamas, and the West Bank, led by the PAwith its headquarters in Ramallah.Hamas combines Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.Its founding charter commits Hamas to the destruction of Israel and thereplacement of the PA with an Islamist state on the West Bank and Gaza.Hamas refuses to recognize the state of Israel, which precludes it from takingpart in any peace talks. Israel, the United States and the European Unionclassify Hamas as a terrorist organization. But Hamas is also a powerfulpolitical and social organization that has a reputation for eschewingcorruption, and it has proved that it can mobilize support in free elections.Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, clinics and sports leaguesthroughout Gaza.
Recent Gaza-Israel Relations
Israel imposed sanctions against Gaza after Hamas won the 2006Palestinian legislative elections and after Hamas subsequently captured anIsraeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who presumably remains under Hamas controlalthough he has not been seen publicly. After Hamas defeated Fatah andtook complete control of Gaza in 2007, Israel then implemented an evenstricter embargo, with Egyptian support. Beginning early in itsadministration, Hamas allowed (probably encouraged) the firing of poorlytargeted rockets into Israel. Other organizations also engaged in thesehomemade rocket attacks. There was a six-month cease fire in 2008, butHamas called off the truce near the end of the year and resumed firingrockets into Israel. Tel Aviv responded in late December with a massiveattack on Gaza by air and ground that lasted for three weeks, killed manyPalestinians and inflicted considerable damage. Rocket attacks from Gazainto Israel have largely ended. The tightened Israeli blockade has made it almost impossible to rebuildthe structures destroyed by Israel during its invasion in late 2008 and early2009. For example, Israel destroyed Gaza’s main power plant and sewagetreatment plant. Power has been partially restored, but there are stillfrequent outages. The sewage treatment plant has not been repaired andraw sewage is spilling into Gaza’s northern shore, polluting an area where Isaw many Palestinians swimming. In an ambiguous announcement on 172
 
 June 2010, Israel said it would adjust its blockade policy and allow moregoods to enter Gaza.
Expectations versus Reality
I was not sure what to expect during this two day visit to Gaza,especially in view of all the publicity following the failed flotilla episode. Myunderlying expectations were that Gaza is an economic dead zone withshortages of nearly everything and that Palestinians living in Gaza would beoverwhelmingly despondent. I also expected to encounter a heavy andvisible Hamas security presence. All three expectations were wide of themark.What I found was bustling commercial activity based on trade throughthe underground tunnels between Gaza’s southern border and Egypt and apopulation that remains angry at its plight but is far from despondent. Istayed in a first class hotel, the Al Deira in Gaza City, and ate in excellentrestaurants with varied menus. The Mediterranean beaches were crowdedfrom sunup until well after sundown with adults and children. Admittedly,this tiny enclave where exit and entry for Palestinians is almost impossibledoes not allow much else by way of recreation. I did see a few armed Hamassecurity personal dressed in black fatigues. They were, however, neithernumerous nor did they seem to be engaged in any activity other than servingon static guard duty. Hamas has reportedly made a major effort to take armsfrom individual Palestinians, a development welcomed by most residents whopreviously were subject to periodic celebratory shooting that resulted in thedeath of innocent people. Before Hamas took power in Gaza, there was alsofrequent family-based factionalism that ended in violence.Small Gazan vessels continue to fish up to 3 miles off the coast. Theyoperate out of the tiny harbor at Gaza City and are easily visible off shore asare the larger Israeli naval vessels that patrol regularly beyond the 3 milezone. The fishing industry has shrunk significantly because of its limitedaccess to the sea. If the small Gazan fishing vessels venture out more than 3miles, the Israeli naval ships fire warning shots or, on occasion, directly at theGazan vessels.
Reactions to the Flotilla
Gazans were still buzzing about the flotilla during my visit. It is clear,however, that the flotilla was largely a political stunt and not a humanitarianaid mission. With the important exception of building materials and largeequipment, the flotilla was bringing little that is not already available in Gaza.Israel’s mishandling of the situation was a propaganda bonanza for Gaza.Residents of Gaza welcomed the flotilla because it focused attention on theirsituation and showed that someone in the outside world cares about Gaza.3

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