There were grimly familiar headlines last week, as a new United Nations report warned that Gaza could be uninhabitable by 2020 if present trends continue. This latest warning arrives three years after the UN similarly predicted that the Gaza Strip would not be “a livable place” by 2020 without drastic action to improve basic infrastructure and services.
The new report, published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), is a thorough analysis of the economic reality of the occupied Palestinian territory. The report lays blame with Israel’s “discriminatory policies”, describing how Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2014 led to a 15 percent drop in the latter’s gross domestic product, sending the Palestinian economy into its first recession since 2006, with unemployment shooting up to 44 percent.
According to the report, prospects for improvement are “bleak”, given continued political instability, insufficient aid, and the slow pace of reconstruction. An additional blow was dealt by Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax revenues during the first four months of 2015.
The UNCTAD report is a stark reminder of how Israel has deliberately forced a process of so-called “de-development” on the Gaza Strip over the last 15 years, a term used to describe how Israel expropriated resources, fostered economic dependency, and undermined Gaza’s capacity for production. The blockade and military assaults have affected every area of life: housing, education, health, sanitation, food security, and more.
In the words of the report, even prior to the violence in the summer of 2014, Israel’s blockade had already “inflicted large-scale destruction on Gaza’s local economy, productive assets and infrastructure”. The assault, known as Operation Protective Edge “impacted an already paralysed economy at a time when socioeconomic conditions were at their lowest since 1967”.
Israeli-imposed restrictions on Gaza began in the 1990s and were intensified in 2000, as Ehud Barak, and then Ariel Sharon, tried to suppress the second Intifada. But worse was to come: After Hamas’ electoral success in 2006, Israel stopped allowing labourers from Gaza to enter via the Erez, or Beit Hanoon, crossing.
The blockade was tightened further in 2007 when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip following violent clashes with Fatah forces. A 2008 US diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks stated: “Israeli officials have confirmed on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.”
The blockade’s key elements – including a list of banned items, such as fishing rods, coriander, and notebooks, and nearly all exports – remained in place until 2010. International anger at Israel’s murderous attack on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara vessel prompted only a slight easing of restrictions. This included restrictions on the movement of people and goods between Gaza and the occupied West Bank, in what Israeli officials have referred to as a “separation policy”.
In addition to the ongoing blockade, there have been three devastating military assaults by Israel since 2008. UNCTAD estimated the direct economic losses of Operation Cast Lead to be at nearly $2.5bn, while the combined direct cost of Operation Pillar of Defence and Operation Protective Edge (including damage to assets and GDP loss), is said to be at nearly $3.2bn.
State of emergency
A year on from the last of these three assaults, reconstruction has started on around 2,000 of the 19,000 homes destroyed last year, but not a single home has been fully rebuilt. Some 100,000 Palestinians are still homeless, and just five percent of the materials needed for reconstruction have been permitted to enter Gaza.
Gaza’s infrastructure is broken and near collapse. Last year, Israel destroyed or damaged 17 hospitals and 56 primary healthcare centres. Education in Gaza is similarly in disarray with 85 percent of schools operating on a double-shift basis; one group of students attends in the morning and a different group attends in the afternoon. Frequent power cuts affect homes, hospitals, and wastewater treatment plants, and 95 percent of the coastal aquifer Gaza residents rely on as a freshwater source is not safe for drinking without treatment