The Gaza Strip – Background

Since the beginning of the second intifada, Israel has imposed harsh restrictions on freedom of movement to and from the Gaza Strip. As part of this policy, Israel has almost completely severed the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, causing Palestinian movement between the two areas to fall drastically. Entry of residents of the Gaza Strip to Israel for family visits or to enable spouses to live together is forbidden, and family visits to Gaza by Arab citizens and residents of Israel have been reduced to a minimum. Israel has made it difficult for Gaza residents to go abroad, and many have been denied exit altogether.

Import and export of goods is limited, and frequently stopped completely. In addition, only a small number of Gazans have been allowed to work in Israel, and tens of thousands of Gazans have lost their source of income. The restrictions on movement of goods and workers have caused a deep recession in the Strip, impaired Gazans’ ability to work, and brought about a sharp decrease in the standard of living. The poverty rate has risen by more than 40 percent.

In September 2005, Israel completed the “Gaza disengagement plan,” which included dismantlement of the settlements in the Gaza Strip, evacuation of the settlers to Israel, and withdrawal of the army from the Strip. After the plan was completed, Israel issued an order declaring the end of the military government in the Gaza Strip and claimed it was no longer responsible for the safety and well-being of the residents there.  In doing so, Israel ignored the harsh reality in the Gaza Strip following its prolonged occupation, the closure it had imposed on the area for more than a decade, and the dependence of the Palestinian economy on the Israeli labor market and trade with Israel.

The army’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and dismantlement of the settlements resulted in considerable improvement in the freedom of movement of Palestinians within the Strip. However, Israel continued to control the crossings into Israel and the air and sea space of the Strip, and decisions regarding the movement of persons and goods into and from the Strip remained in its hands. Although Rafah Crossing on the Egyptian border operated for seven months after the disengagement, in accord with an agreement reached by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, enabling movement to Egypt, it was closed after the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006.

In June 2007, after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel further tightened its control of the crossings. Since then, it has been almost impossible for Palestinians to enter or leave the Strip, or to export or import goods. Three months after the Hamas takeover, in response to the ongoing firing of Qassam rockets at Israel, Israel’s security cabinet declared the Strip a “hostile entity” and decided on collective punitive measures, including reducing the supply of electricity and fuel to the Strip.

The siege on the Gaza Strip has led to a substantial drop in the availability of necessities and medicines there and a sharp rise in their prices. Most factories and hundreds of businesses have closed. In 2009, the number of unemployed persons in the Gaza Strip rose to 140,000, some 40 percent of the workforce there. This policy infringes the right of Palestinians in the Strip to work and earn a living with dignity and their right to an adequate standard of living.

After implementation of the disengagement plan, some Palestinian organizations in the Strip continued to fired rockets and mortars at Israeli communities close to the Green Line, in violation of fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, under which intentional gunfire at civilians constitutes a war crime. From September 2005 to the end of November 2009, 11 Israelis were killed by the rocket and mortar fire.

For its part, Israel has employed a variety of means, among them artillery fire at what the army refers to as “Qassam launching spaces” and areas near the border that are classified as “death zones.” The open-fire regulations permit firing at Palestinians found in these zones even if they are not life-threatening. Israel has increased its targeted killing of Palestinians it alleges are involved in attacks against Israel. The targeted-killing operations have also killed many bystanders. According to B’Tselem’s figures, since the implementation of the disengagement plan, Israel has killed 52 bystanders (27 of them minors) in these operations.

Since the disengagement, the army has conducted several ground-forces operations in the Strip. For example, following the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit on 26 June 2006, Israel initiated an extensive operation, which was given the name Summer Rains. In the operation, the army bombed civilian infrastructure and made incursions into crowded population centers. Since then, Israel has attacked the Gaza Strip several times.

In all these actions (until 26 December 2008), Israel killed 522 Palestinians who were not taking part in the hostilities. This number included 195 minors, 49 women, and 25 men over age 50.

On 27 December 2008, Israel began its most extensive operation, which it called Cast Lead. Operation Cast Lead continued until 18 January 2009 and caused unprecedented harm to the civilian population – 1,389 Palestinians were killed, including 759 civilians who did not take part in the hostilities, and thousands were wounded. Israel also caused enormous damage to buildings and infrastructure, causing electricity, water, and sewage facilities, which were on the verge of collapse before the operation, to cease functioning completely. According to UN figures, Israel destroyed over 3,500 residential dwellings, leaving large numbers of persons homeless.

Contrary to Israel’s contention that, following the disengagement, it is no longer obligated to care for the safety and welfare of Gaza residents, international law imposes certain obligations. Under human rights law, Israel is required to respect the rights of Gaza residents in matters in which control remains in its hands. These obligations result from the scope of actual control over major facets of the residents’ lives that Israel continued to hold after the disengagement, and from the almost total dependence of the Strip’s economy on the Israeli economy, a result of the prolonged occupation.

When an armed conflict is taking place in the Gaza Strip, Israel is also bound by the provisions of international humanitarian law, under which civilians must remain outside the cycle of the hostilities. Two fundamental principles – distinction and proportionality – are intended to ensure this. Under these principles, it is absolutely forbidden to intentionally attack civilians, and when an attack is aimed at a military object, the anticipated harm to civilians may not be excessive in comparison with the direct military advantage anticipated. In addition, during the hostilities, Israel must provide special protection to certain groups, among them the sick, the wounded, and children, and must enable medicines and necessary foodstuffs to feely enter the area and medical teams to treat the sick and wounded.

(www.btselem.org / 23.04.2011)

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