Israel And Gaza: A Crack In The Stalemate

A Palestinian tunnel-digger enters a smuggling tunnel in Rafah, along the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip.

Israel announced Sunday that it would partially lift its three-year blockade of Gaza – a move that will expand the flow of food and goods into the Hamas-ruled enclave that’s home to 1.5 million people.

The announcement came three weeks after Israel raided a Gaza-bound flotilla filled with pro-Palestinian aid activists. Nine people, including one American, were killed during the raid – which provoked anger against Israel worldwide.

Writer Lawrence Wright spent three weeks in the Gaza Strip last year and wrote about his experiences in The New Yorker. He joins Fresh Air to detail how the capture of an Israeli solider named Gilad Shalit led to the three-year blockade, what the sanctions have done to Gaza’s economy and what Israel’s easing of the Gaza blockade could mean for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“Right now I think we have a very ripe moment for change in the relationship between Israel and Gaza in particular,” he tells Terry Gross. “Suddenly the Israelis announce that they are easing the blockade. Well, it would be a good time for Hamas to respond and a great way to do that would be to release Gilad Shalit unconditionally. It would, I think, make a huge impression on the world community and I think it would provide face-saving for the Israeli authorities and also a powerful incentive to respond in kind. That would be the most ideal outcome of this entire flotilla episode.”

Lawrence Wright is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

Interview Highlights

On how the Israeli blockade of Gaza began

“In June 2006, a young Israeli solider named Gilad Shalit was abducted from a crossing called Kerem Shalom in southwestern Israel. And since then, he’s been held captive. The Israelis surrounded the strip and sealed off the borders and went rummaging through the residential areas looking for him. Four hundred Gazans were killed in the next several months, and the Israelis said they weren’t going to leave until they had recaptured Gilad Shalit. But by November [2006], it became pretty obvious that that wasn’t going to happen.

“Then in 2007, there was an election in the Palestinian territories, and to the astonishment of practically the entire world community, Hamas won. Now this was really shocking, especially in Israel because Hamas is dedicated to the elimination of Israel. And when in June of that year, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and expelled the Fatah government – which, after all, had been defeated in the election but had been refusing to concede power, the Israelis declared Gaza a hostile entity – as if the entire population of Gaza was affiliated with Hamas. And that’s when they began imposing this very strict blockade.”

On what the lifting of the blockade means

“They say they’re going to allow unlimited food and other kinds of clothing materials and so on. I think that they’re still very concerned about items that could be construed as having a use in weapons or building bunkers. For instance, concrete and construction materials have been a hang-up all along. So this is going to be a difficult point for the Israelis.”

On the effect of the blockade on food and medication

“There were food items that were allowed in and then there was food that was smuggled in. And it was never really clear to me on what I was eating – where it came from. The Israeli control had a list that was kept very closely held and so sometimes, something like jam might be put on the list but macaroni would be taken off of it. So it was inscrutable. People never really knew what kind of foodstuffs were going to be allowed into the strip. That was all supplemented by everything else that came through the tunnels in the southern part of the country.”

On what the tunnels looked like

“The tunnels are in the southern part of the Gaza Strip right next to the Egyptian border, which is 9 miles long. We’re talking about sand essentially. So they bore down 30, 40, 50 feet straight down and then they turn the corner and head to Egypt. And usually they come up on the other side in some predesignated house. Like they’ll come up inside the kitchen or something like that. So you wouldn’t be able to see the actual exit hole for the tunnel. And goods are brought into the Rafah-Egyptian side. And they’re brought into the house. They’re put into a hole in the ground. They’re sent down using a winch down to where the tunnel floor greets the lateral part of the tunnel and then the smuggler hauls it across.”

On Gaza’s population demographics

“More than half [of Gaza’s population] are 18 years old or younger. And when you’re there, you’re just overwhelmed by how youthful the population is. And this is a very worrisome fact to the Israelis who often talk about the demographic time bomb. I remember asking this senior Hamas official about this and he said ‘It’s nothing sinister. We just love to reproduce.’ ” But you can see that is manifest everywhere – kids all over the place and there’s very little for them to do. When I was there, the blockade included a ban on toys, and many of the sports facilities had been bombed by the Israelis. The Islamists had burned down all of the movie theaters in the ’80s and the main diversion for children was the beach. But the beach was stained and stinking from the fact that they dump 20 million gallons a day of raw and partially treated sewage offshore. So you could smell it.”

On each side understanding each other

“This is the thing that is so striking to me: Each side is so dehumanized in the eyes of the other and there’s this sometimes overtly stated, but sometimes implied – they got what they deserved. You hear that in one form or another so many times. For instance, when I was talking to this young Hamas racketeer, I said ‘Do you feel guilty about sending these rockets into civilian areas?’ [He said] ‘No, no. I mean they’re not limited their war for civilians so why should I feel guilty?’ That’s the mentality that you’re dealing with. It’s very discouraging to go into, especially for an American. And I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East, but when you talk to people about the current situation there’s a sense that nothing can change. There’s a feeling of paralysis. … Nothing is happening. They don’t believe anything can happen. And it’s that feeling that nothing good can happen and only bad can develop – that’s what’s really crippling that whole region.”

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