As Israelis head to the polls, an important question is being asked: Will the Goverment of Israel take a different course on Gaza? DW looks at the territory's gradual isolation, which began before Hamas came to power.
The Gaza Strip is 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide, and it is home to more than 1.5 million Palestinians. In 2006, the Israeli government imposed a strict blockade on the territory as a reaction to the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit - a year after Hamas came to power. The aim of the Israeli government was to isolate and weaken radical Islamic organization Hamas.
Since the blockade began, people in Gaza cannot move freely, the local economy has collapsed, and the unemployment rate is above 45 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Salah Abdel Shafi, the Palestinian ambassador to Germany, said in an interview with DW that Gaza has turned into a large, open-air prison.
Freedom of movement
The recent years have marked a substantial change, says Sari Bashi, who heads the Israeli non-profit Gisha, which advocates the free movement of Palestinians in Gaza.
"In 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, (…) those areas became united. And for three decades, Israel pursued a policy of economic integration between Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. So there was freedom of movement between Gaza, the West Bank and Israel until the 1990s," she told DW.
At that time, the economy served the needs of Israelis as well as Palestinians, Bashi recalls. Many people in Gaza depended on Israeli employers. And until the beginning of the 1990s, that wasn't a problem - people had absolute freedom of movement.
Moves toward blockade in 1991
But as early as 1991, Israel began restricting these freedoms among Gaza's Palestinians in the wake of the first intifada - the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. In addition, Hamas had been founded and the first Gulf War had taken place.
"And since then, we have seen slowly closing off of the ability to exit Gaza for entrance to Israel or the West Bank," Bashi says.
At first, magnetic cards were introduced. Then the workers from Gaza who wanted to go to Israel needed to get a permit from the Israeli army. Also, a physical barrier was built during Yitzhak Rabin's time as prime minister, and the Gaza Strip was fenced off.
With the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, tight limitations were imposed on Gaza inhabitants traveling to Israel or the West Bank. It was during this time that rocket fire on Israel began. After all, Gaza had long been oriented toward Hamas, according to Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann. Students were denied the right to study in the West Bank, and that ban continues to the present.
The Israeli government said it wanted to prevent Palestinians in Gaza from exporting terrorist structures to the West Bank, Bashi said.
Hamas as the enemy
In 2005, the government under Ariel Sharon gave up all its settlements in the Gaza Strip. Israeli leaders described that move as an attempt at increasing security and reducing tensions between Israel and Palestine to a minimum. The conflict did not diminish. Since then, there have been repeated discussions as to whether the Israeli government is occupying Gaza or not.
The EU, Great Britain and the UN say that Israel still has a responsibility to the people of Gaza because - as per the definition of 'occupation' - it has the authority over many important aspects of life there, Bashi said. Israel controls the borders to Gaza, the airspace and the waterways. With the election victory of Hamas in 2006, the area was sealed off for good. Militant Palestinians fired rockets on Israel in response.
Through 2010, the borders were entirely sealed off. No one could go in or leave. Since that year, Gaza inhabitants have been able to travel abroad via Egypt, but they could only export their goods to a few EU countries or the Gulf States. However, Gaza's most important markets have long been Israel and the West Bank.
"Israel's stance on Gaza became very radical when Hamas came to power," Israeli historian Zimmermann said.
Hamas survived the war with Israel in 2008/09 and the military offensive last November. But Gaza's inhabitants continue to suffer after years of on-going isolation.
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