The Crisis in Gaza and the Rafah Crossing: How Much Has Changed?

June 21, 2011

When Egypt opened the Rafah crossing into Gaza, much of the coverage fell into two camps: One raising warnings that the opening would ease transit for armed groups and lead to a rise in terrorism, the other praising it as changing the humanitarian crisis.

gaza children
More than half of Gaza's population are children.

A month later, what evidence we have seen is that the former hasn’t occurred but hopes for the later was overstated.  The humanitarian crisis in Gaza hasn’t changed significantly at all.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  The Rafah opening is the only opening between Gaza and Egypt.  It was never designed to carry commercial and humanitarian traffic, and the ability to bring commercial items, food and other goods through the single crossing is extremely limited.

An Israeli freedom-of-movement group, Gisha, challenges the common perception that the residents of Gaza maintain control over the political and economic system – an opinion heard more loudly after the Rafah opening. Their film (see below), done in the style of the newsreels shown in Israeli movie theaters in the 1950s and ’60s, states that the blockade harms the civilian population and destroys any hope for commercial growth there without any real effect on the security situation for Israel.

The Rafah opening hasn’t changed Amnesty International’s position on the Gaza blockade either – that it punishes a civilian population rather than targeting armed groups or individuals. Israel continues to control Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters, telecommunications, and population registry as well as every other crossing into and out of Gaza.  Because Israel continues to maintain effective control over Gaza, the international community still considers Israel under the legal obligations of an occupying power, including safeguarding the welfare of the occupied inhabitants.

Israel has imposed increasingly severe restrictions on Palestinian movement into and out of Gaza since the early 1990s, including on their movement to other parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  After Hamas took control in Gaza in June 2007, the existing Israeli policy of closure was tightened to a blockade restricting the entry of food, fuel, and other basic goods. Movement of medical cases in and out of the area became restricted and delayed. Gazan families are not allowed to visit relatives in Israeli jails.

In real terms, the blockade affects nearly every aspect of daily life in Gaza:

  • The blockade prohibits exports and severely restricts the entry of basic goods, including food, water and fuel. Much of the available food, cooking oil, and goods such as diapers, baby formula and toilet paper is paid for by the UN and other aid agencies, or smuggled in through tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border and then sold on at exorbitantly high prices to Gaza’s beleaguered residents.

  • According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the number of refugees living in abject poverty in the Gaza Strip has tripled since the blockade began. These families lack the means to purchase even the most basic items, including soap, school materials and clean drinking water. According to the UN, more than 60 per cent of households are currently “food insecure.”

  • There are worsening problems with the supply of electricity in the Gaza Strip, with many residents enduring 8-12 hours of power cuts each day.  There are also recurrent shortages of cooking gas, requiring the implementation of a rationing scheme in which hospitals and bakeries are prioritized.

  • Gaza’s health sector has been plagued by shortages in equipment and medical supplies during the blockade.

Simply, the Rafah opening isn’t enough to alleviate the misery of the Gaza population of 1.5 million or even kick start its recovery from the blockade and destruction wrought by the Gaza conflict two years ago. Israel must step up and face its  legal obligations. Taking action to end the blockade is a good first step.