Gaza’s Shrinking Borders:
16 Years Of The Oslo Process
By Sharat G. Lin
27 December, 2009
Forty-two years of military occupation and sixteen years of the Oslo Process have made Gaza a smaller place. Already one of the most densely-populated strips of land in the world, its population has grown during this period from less than 360,000 in 1967 to 1.5 million today. Meanwhile, its borders have not only become more impermeable, but they have been progressively closing in on what some have called “the world’s largest open air prison.”
In the early years following Israel’s seizure of the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War in June 1967, Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals routinely crossed the border between Israel and Gaza without much difficulty. Palestinian fishermen routinely sailed as far out to sea as necessary to secure a good day’s catch. International freighters continued to arrive at Gaza Port to unload their goods and take on Palestinian fruits, flowers, and other products. Among the first casualties of the Israeli occupation was the loss of trade and tourism with Egypt, but life went on for most Gaza residents. Over the years, many would eventually find employment in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere inside Israel, mostly in construction and services – 130,000 workers commuting from Gaza to Israel at its peak.
However, owing to the heightened tensions of occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank, illegal Israeli settlement activity, successive breakdowns in the peace process, and the Palestinian Intifadas, the situation of Gaza residents continued to deteriorate. Employment inside Israel for Gaza residents was largely cut off by Israel during the Second Intifada beginning in September 2000, and completely eliminated with the economic siege imposed on Hamas in Gaza in January 2006.
As part of the Oslo Process that began in 1993, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of May 1994 established a fishing limit for Gaza fishermen at 20 nautical miles from the shore. A “Maritime Activity Zone K” 1.5 nautical miles wide was established as a “security” buffer from the Israeli sea boundary inside Gaza’s territorial waters and extending out from shore to the 20-nautical-mile fishing limit. It would be a “closed area” patrolled by the Israeli Navy. A similar “Maritime Activity Zone M” one nautical mile wide was demarcated as a buffer on the sea border with Egypt. Zone M would be patrolled not by the Egyptian Navy, but exclusively by the Israeli Navy. The offshore area in between these security zones was designated “Maritime Activity Zone L” within which Palestinian fishermen were allowed to fish.
In the context of a surge in suicide bombings inside Israel and the comprehensive Israeli military assault on all the occupied Palestinian territories launched at the end of April 2002, Israel demanded tighter limits on Gaza fishermen, as if unarmed fishermen could be any sort of realistic threat to Israel’s security. In August 2002, the Bertini Agreement restricted Gaza’s fishing limit to 12 nautical miles from shore.
When the Israeli government forcibly evicted thousands of Israeli settlers from Gaza and then withdrew its own troops by September 2005, it labelled the move “disengagement.” Many thought that the occupation of Gaza was coming to an end. But on 25 January 2006, the day of Palestinian elections, Israel sealed off Gaza by closing the last open crossing at Erez citing “security concerns” relating to the anticipated strong polling for Hamas. The six functional crossings into Gaza have never been fully opened to anything but a trickle of people and goods since that time.
The final election results gave Hamas an absolute majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, 74 seats out of 132. After the elections, Israel continued to severely limit the flow of people and goods into and out of Gaza in an attempt to destabilize popular support for Hamas and block Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian government headquartered in Ramallah in the West Bank. It systematically arrested most of the newly-elected Hamas members. By default, Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas took the reigns of government as president and appointed a Fatah colleague, Salam Fayyad, as prime minister, despite Hamas having won the parliamentary right to form a new government.
In April 2006, as part of the ever-tightening noose around Hamas-ruled Gaza, the Israeli Navy began enforcing a 10 nautical mile limit on Gaza fishermen. In October 2006, it changed its mind and reduced the limit to 6 nautical miles.
The drastic lack of employment, and the obstacles placed on the supply of food, drinking water, medicines, fuel, and electricity became a chronic collective punishment on all Gaza residents under occupation in full violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Gaza is a strip of land approximately 40 kilometres long by 7 kilometres wide. It includes cities, towns, 8 major refugee camps and several minor ones, agricultural land, and uncultivable sand dunes and saline intrusion areas. With nearly 1.5 million people, Gaza has an overall population density twice that of a typical suburban U.S. city. Gaza cannot possibly feed itself. It has no developed natural sources of energy – neither fossil fuel extraction, hydroelectric potential, nor alternative energy sources. It has no natural aquifers to provide renewable fresh water. As a relatively unindustrialized territory, it is completely dependent on the outside for nearly all of its consumption needs. Lacking inputs and cut off from export markets, Gaza’s two industrial export zones at the Erez and Karni crossings are now idled.
Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza changed nothing with respect to the wall and fence that completely encircle Gaza from its northern boundary with Israel to its southern boundary with Egypt. Even the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt (primarily for people) is effectively controlled by Israel through remotely-controlled video cameras, European Union monitors, and Egyptian immigration authorities who have acceded to Israeli demands to exercise veto power over any person or baggage moving through the Rafah crossing. The Kerem Shalom crossing for goods from and to Egypt is controlled directly by Israel because trucks must cross Israeli territory to and from the al-Auja crossing far to the south on the Egyptian-Israeli border. The remaining checkpoints not only are opened by Israel very sparingly, but are each opened by Israel for very specific purposes. The Erez crossing in the north is the primary gateway for people, but not for goods. Nahal Oz crossing is the primary entry point for liquid fuels. Karni crossing is the main gateway for food, medicines, and manufactured goods. Sufa crossing was primarily for bulk aggregates and building materials, but like Kissufim and Ele Sinai crossings are now effectively closed.
Meanwhile, the border itself has been progressively expanding. What started as a border fence became a wall. A second parallel security barrier eventually enclosed a security patrol zone containing in some places two parallel security roads. After disengagement, a 500-metre-wide buffer zone was implemented by the Israeli Defence Forces on the Gaza side of the border, within which any Palestinian is frequently shot at. This deprives Palestinian farmers holding lands within the buffer zone of the ability to cultivate their lands. After the January 2009 Israeli invasion, the buffer zone was expanded to two kilometres.
Gaza had a commercial airport southeast of Rafah, but Israel severely bombed its runway. All Palestinian air traffic has been banned under Israeli occupation and after “disengagement.” That leaves the sea. The Israeli Navy controls all waters around Gaza and does not allow any vessels in or out of Gaza’s fishing limits. There are over 700 registered boats, mostly fishing boats, registered in Gaza. The boats provide a livelihood for 3000 Palestinian fishermen according to a United Nations survey. The wooden boats operate out of four wharfs at Gaza Port, Deir al-Balah, Mawasi Khan Yunis, and Mawasi Rafah. Of these, only the larger fishing boats at Gaza Port can sail far from shore; the smaller boats at the latter three wharfs are only capable of navigating along the coast. But after the Israeli military assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, even the larger fishing boats cannot venture more than 3 nautical miles from shore owing to the Israeli Navy enforcing a draconian new limit.
Not only has Gaza effectively become the world’s largest open-air prison, but the walls of the prison have been progressively closing in on its inmate population. The only way to avert a humanitarian catastrophe is to lift the siege of Gaza and restore the ability to travel freely and engage in viable economic activity -- fundamental human rights presently denied.
Sharat G. Lin is president of the San José Peace and Justice Center and writes on global political economy, the Middle East, South Asia, and labor migration. He wrote this report from Cairo.