Gaza Blockade Isn't Really About Stopping Weapons

Israel's prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, says the Gaza blockade--which the flotilla of humanitarian aid had tried last week to circumvent--is about stopping weapons smugglers. Here's why it's not. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

With the killing of nine pro-Palestinian activists aboard a ship bound for the Gaza Strip, Israel is facing mounting pressure to relax its blockade of the area. And late this week Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu signaled he might be willing to relax the three-year-old embargo. In reports, unnamed Israeli officials, said Netanyahu might allow more goods to reach Palestinians and consent to having an international naval force inspect future Gaza-bound aid ships. But Netanyahu is adamant that these changes would be implemented only if Israel can continue blocking weapons from getting to the strip.

If true, Western powers will applaud the gestures. The only problem is that weapons-smuggling is not the real reason Israel has been blockading Gaza since 2007, the year Hamas seized power there. Clearly, Israel has cause to worry about weapons flowing into Gaza from Egypt, Iran, and elsewhere. But the real reason Israel has sealed Gaza is economic. When it comes to the blockade policy, weapons-smuggling is a red herring.

View the victims of the devastating destruction in Gaza. Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum

Think about it. There are three ways goods can get into Gaza: through Israeli crossing points, via illicit tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, and by sea. Israel controls the crossing points, so, open or closed, no weapons can make it to Palestinians that way. The tunnels operated long before the blockade was imposed and have multiplied in number over the past three years. Everything from livestock and gasoline to guns and rocket launchers are smuggled through them—and that hasn't changed during the blockade. So, while Israel wants to stem the flow of arms from Egypt, easing or eliminating the blockade wouldn't change the equation of things in those tunnels—the weapons are getting in anyway.

That leaves the sea route. Palestinians have certainly tried smuggling large amounts of weapons to Gaza by ship. In his speech following the storming of the Gaza-bound flotilla this week, Netanyahu mentioned two such vessels, the MV Francop in 2009 and the Karine A in 2002. What he didn't say was that Israel intercepted both ships in international waters without so much as a peep from the rest of the world. In the case of the Karine A, it did so years before the current blockade on Gaza was in place. In other words, Israel doesn't need a siege policy to stanch weapons-smuggling to Gaza by sea. All it needs is good intelligence and an effective navy. In both areas, Israel has shown itself to be extremely competent (though not necessarily this week).

So what is the blockade about? Chiefly, it's about hampering the Hamas government by impeding Gaza's economy. Israel has made a lot of noise this week about how much humanitarian aid is allowed to cross the border every week. True enough. But Israel's government lets very little come out of Gaza via those crossings, making it next to impossible for most farmers and manufacturers to export their goods. According to Gisha, an Israeli rights group that gathers data on the blockade, about 90 percent of factories in Gaza are either closed or working at minimal capacity. If the goal of the blockade is to prevent arms from coming in, why block goods from going out? Those hurt most by the closing of this export artery are Gaza's entrepreneurial—largely moderate—middle class, not the political leaders or the gunmen of Hamas.

The blockade had other goals as well. Israel hoped it would force the release of its captured soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has held since 2006, and stop the rocket attacks on Israeli territory. Indeed, rocket attacks are down, but largely as a result of Israel's withering assault on the strip last year. Shalit remains a captive. And considering the fact that Hamas uses the blockade to generate income—by taxing goods Palestinians smuggle into Gaza through the tunnels—it's clear the siege policy has been a failure for Israel.

What's the alternative? Opening the border crossings between Israel and Gaza would divert much of the commerce away from the tunnels, denying Hamas that revenue stream. In exchange for lifting the blockade, Israel could demand from the international community a solution to the problem of weapons-smuggling through the tunnels (Egypt is already in the process of embedding a steel wall deep in the ground along the border with Gaza). Once Palestinians are again allowed to import and export freely through Israel, there would be no reason for political activists on flotillas to deliver goods to Gaza. Since the Gaza Strip has no port, the Israeli government could reasonably assume any ship approaching the area is engaged in illicit activity. In those circumstances, Israel would be justified in blocking and even boarding the vessels.

This alternative approach might give Hamas a chance to show it can govern successfully, something Israel understandably fears. But the policy of punishing all Gazans in the hope they'll throw out their anti-Israel leaders is both callous and shortsighted. If the past three years are an indication, it's also ineffective.