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  • “Meeting with a Dietician”: Israel’s Institutionalised Impoverishment of Gaza
  • Trude Strand (bio)

50 days. More than 2,100 Palestinians killed, including 501 children. Some 108,000 people left homeless. 26 schools completely destroyed, and 62 clinics and hospitals damaged. 128 businesses and workshops in ruins. 1 Around US$4 billion required to rebuild.

The numbers speak of the devastation wreaked on Gaza in July and August 2014. To Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli military assault, dubbed “Protective Edge”, was a “great military and political” achievement.2 To the Palestinians in Gaza, the figures above mask the individual stories of trauma and loss among 1.8 million people directly affected by the violence. Meanwhile, at the structural level, the onslaught follows a predictable pattern, and represents yet another chapter of an abnormal existence that has become routine for Gaza’s inhabitants.

The story of Israel and the Gaza Strip since 1967 is one of occupation and control. By the time of the 1967 War, Gaza had already been a source of regional friction for two decades. After a short-lived occupation of the Strip in 1956–57, Israel was forced to leave after international pressure. Ten years later, Israeli decision-makers were determined not to repeat the mistake and left no room for international involvement. Placing Gaza under its formal control in 1967, Israel changed the status quo, marking a qualitative shift in policy based on a targeted, deliberate and unilateral decision.

For decades, Israeli policy on fundamental issues in the Gaza Strip has – with few exceptions – consistently relied on unilateralism.3 Acting alone has saved Israeli politicians from having to engage directly with Palestinian representatives to find mutually acceptable solutions. Equally, no third party has been able to coerce or co-opt Israel into taking specific action or adopt particular policies.4 Outside the unilateral framework, the main orientation has been toward the United States, through seeking approval, support and protection from critics within the international community, at times post facto.5

Israel’s unilateral approach to Gaza over recent years has been characterised by three central aspects coming together in a policy of domination, political fragmentation and institutionalised impoverishment. There is evidence that Israeli policymakers have gone to great lengths to protect its position as occupier in the West Bank, maintain the diplomatic status quo with the Palestinian Authority, and fuel tensions between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus undermining the Palestinian nationalist agenda.6 Both the blockade on Gaza and repeated military assaults have featured as instruments in implementing these lines of policy.

Keeping focus on the latter policy aspect—the institutionalised impoverishment of Gaza—Israel’s record over the last ten years is instructive, starting with the pull-out in autumn 2005.7 As the evacuation went ahead, coordination with the Palestinian Authority was minimal. While Israel upheld its role in determining the volume of goods into and out of Gaza, it also transpired that the entry of Palestinian workers to the country would be discouraged until it ceased completely.8 Most importantly, Israel no longer viewed Gaza as under belligerent occupation. Rather, the relationship was seen as one of armed conflict. To Israeli policymakers, this meant that “disengagement” spelt the end of Israel’s responsibility for the welfare of Gaza’s population. According to its own interpretation, all Israel would have to do from then on was to facilitate passage of essential humanitarian supplies in line with the laws of armed conflict.9 In short, Israel would allow a bare minimum of supplies into the Strip while asserting its right to continue targeting it militarily.

In return for “disengagement”, Israel received American backing not only for continued Israeli control over Gaza’s access points, coastal waters and airspace, but also for the use of force against “threats” from the Gaza Strip.10 Through U.S. endorsement Israel secured the ability to remain thoroughly “engaged” in Gaza affairs by means of almost total external control, a hand on the lever for imports and exports, and a carte blanche on military action as seen fit. Thus, beyond the physical withdrawal from the Strip, Israel had successfully and unilaterally redefined its role and responsibility...

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