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Open Gaza's seaport, end the blockade

Hanine Hassan

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Opening Gaza's seaport can provide Palestinians humiliation-free access to the world.

May 16, 2014


The nonchalance with which the West has been observing the slow decomposition of the Palestinian social fabric in Gaza in its eighth year of Israeli blockade amounts to a level of criminal complicity in the face of international law.

The ongoing Israeli blockade - recently in full cooperation with Egypt - of the tiny coastal strip has been defined as the collective punishment of approximately 1.6 million civilians. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that "No persons may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed". Therefore, the Israeli collective punishment of the inhabitants of Gaza is a violation of international law, and as such a war crime.

Siege and blockade are causing severe shortages of essential supplies from building materials to medicine and generating a sense of despair. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that "the number of patients' applications submitted in March 2014 to Israeli authorities for health access through Erez Crossing was the highest since the WHO began monitoring access in 2005. The increase in need reflects the continuing problems of access through Rafah border to Egypt and lack of drugs, especially chemotherapy and lack of medical disposables".

Additionally, three referral patients died in March while waiting for approval to exit Gaza, including a young woman who died one day after being interviewed by Israeli security officials. In addition, according to Gaza Ministry of Health's statistics until 2010 at least 373 patients have died while waiting for specialist medical treatment outside the Gaza Strip. These patients were not granted their right to optimal and rapid treatment, as Israeli Authorities gamble with their lives behind a bulletproof fence.

The UN, the ICRC, the EU and many states and humanitarian organisations have repeatedly condemned Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, calling it "a direct contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law". The Israeli government was urged to remove the restrictions on Gaza's borders and to allow free import and export of goods into the strip.

However, all calls urging both Israel and Egypt to open their land crossings and ease their restrictions are going unheeded. Should the world want to redeem itself, easing the blockade on Gaza by re-opening Gaza's seaport routes to the outside world, would be a first step. This would provide Palestinians in Gaza a secure and dignified passageway and free them from dependence on the usually absent goodwill of Israel and Egypt to respect humanitarian law.

At maritime crossroads

Gaza City has a long history as a crossroad of regional trade and travel. As a port city, Gaza was a stop on the Incense Road from the 7th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. In more recent history, until World War I, Gaza seaport was a main hub for import and export trade to southern Palestine, and its hinterland, including Jordan and Iraq.

Since 1967, Israel has exercised full control of Gaza's 43km coastline and territorial waters, blocking ships from reaching the city. Gaza seaport is the only Mediterranean port closed to shipping.

Between 1967 and 1994, the existing infrastructure was severely neglected. Railways, air and seaports were no longer at the free disposal of Palestinians and were only there to serve Israel, its army and its settlers.

As part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Netherlands and France governments committed $42.8m to the reconstruction of the Gaza seaport and to the training of port personnel. A Dutch-French consortium that specialises in seaports signed a construction contract in July 2000 with the Palestinian Authority. The work was scheduled to be completed by August 2002.

The contractor started mobilising, but all construction activities were halted due to the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. In 2002, the Israeli navy attacked the Palestinian naval police base and patrol boats in Gaza, causing extensive damage to the harbour and no further implementation of the project was allowed.

Opening the seaport

As the siege on Gaza is tightening, rebuilding the port would provide Gaza with its own outlet. It would not only provide Palestinians freedom of movement, but it would also contribute to reviving the economy and improving social and political life in the strip.

In 2010, the Council of the European Union stated that "the situation in Gaza remains unsustainable. The continued policy of closure is unacceptable and politically counterproductive". However, the EU has not ceased supporting Israel in its Gaza blockade over Hamas' takeover of the strip. The time is past ripe for the EU to reconsider its policies and implement and respect its own resolutions. In June 2010 the European Parliament urged EU Member States to "take steps to ensure the sustainable opening of all the crossing points to and from Gaza, including the port of Gaza, with adequate international end-use monitoring".  

Establishing a maritime window from Gaza to the outside world is not an impossible task, if the focus is put on Israel's state violence, war crimes and human rights violations.

The EU should stop supporting minor and inconsistent humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, as an unsustainable tactic to delay the next big catastrophe. Instead, the EU should focus its efforts to push for the opening of a maritime route to Gaza. The EU Border Assistance Mission in Rafah (EUBAM Rafah), established in 2005 to monitor the operations of the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, is maintaining its operational capability and is ready to re-engage should a political solution be reached.

The Gaza harbour can be developed to incorporate passengers and cargo handling terminals. Ships from Gaza could dock in Cyprus, and passengers could board their airplanes at Larnaca Airport to any destination they wish, without having to suffer any humiliation from the Egyptian and Israeli authorities.

The seaport could be made operational within months, and Israel's fears and objections over who would control the port and inspect the cargo could be handled by the deployment of international monitors on site. EUBAM, in agreement with the Palestinian Seaport Authority, could deploy an international naval force to monitor the Gaza seashore.

Turkey, which has taken to heart Gaza's ongoing humanitarian crisis, is in its final stage of negotiations with Tel Aviv regarding the 2010 Mavi Marmara solidarity ship that was boarded by armed Israeli commandos, leading to the tragic murder of nine Turkish civilians. In 2013, Israel officially apologised to Turkey.

The negotiations have focused on two main points: the compensation of the victims' families and the ending of the Israeli siege. In this regard, Turkey can demand Israel to supply Gaza with a maritime route to Cyprus, or to one of Turkey's harbours.

This alternative should be promoted by the Egyptian and Palestinian governments, as it would serve their long-term interests. The Palestinian Authority should welcome and work towards solutions to end the siege of Gaza, and not link it to the Palestinian internal division or to Israel's fruitless negotiations. In the context of the Palestinian reconciliation process, the local government of Gaza has declared previously its willingness to hand over the management of border crossings.

The West and Turkey should cooperate to end eight shameful years of Israeli blockade on Gaza. The only obstacle they currently face is Israel and its ability to manipulate them by playing the victim and waving the security card.

The international community should not be complicit in Israel's crimes and should pressure it into accepting the opening of Gaza to the world. After eight long years of suffering, it is imperative that Palestinians in Gaza are given an opportunity to live in dignity and peace.

Hanine Hassan is PhD candidate at Columbia University.  Her research focuses on the long-term effects of humiliation as a tool of oppression by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.



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