Keith Ellison, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s 5th District in the House of Representatives.
It seems as though each day brings new horrors and heartbreaks in the Holy Land. More than 1,000 dead. Gazan children blown up on the beach. A U.N. shelter hit. Two-thirds of Israelis living in fear from indiscriminate rocket fire launched by Hamas. But as the calls for a cease-fire gain momentum, it is important to understand that many Gazans who have no association with Hamas view the return to the way things were as unacceptable.
These people aren’t rocket shooters or combatants. For the past several years they have lived in dreadful isolation. The status quo for ordinary Gazans is a continuation of no jobs and no freedom. This is not an attractive future. Gazans want and deserve the dignity of economic opportunity and freedom to move. This can be accomplished only with an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which must be considered within the framework of a cease-fire. Israelis likewise deserve to live free of rocket fire and terror attacks. In order for Israelis to live safely and securely in their homes, Hamas must give up its rockets and other weapons.
I have traveled to Gaza three times since 2009 and have visited hospitals and schools there. As I have talked with ordinary Gazans, I have not encountered anyone representing Hamas. During one visit, I had the opportunity to meet Scott Anderson, deputy director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Anderson, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army, said it best when I spoke to him again this week: “Unless there is material change to the status quo, you’re just resetting the clock for another cycle of violence.” Continuing to block goods and services to and from Gaza keeps the keys to opportunity away from the people who just want to live, work and travel.
The vast majority of Gazans do not support firing rockets into Israel or killing Israelis. In fact, the majority of people in Gaza are women and children. During my first visit to the region, this fact was clear: There were kids everywhere. This week, I also spoke with Yousef Moussa, chief area operations officer at the UNRWA office in Rafah. He puts this observation in context, noting, “50 percent of Gazans are under the age of 18. Seventy percent of Gazans are women and children. 80 percent of Gazans live below the poverty line. Relatively few Gazans are associated with Hamas.”
So how can the international community support those Gazans who don’t support indiscriminate rocket fire? We could take steps to allow for the safe flow of goods and services into Gaza and the export of goods and services to neighboring countries. We could advocate for Gazans to have freedom of movement. Now, if you’re a Gazan traveling in the West Bank, the Israeli military can forcibly return you to Gaza. Being able to import goods such as food, fuel and medicine would mean that Gazans would not be forced to buy necessities from a tunnel economy controlled by extremists. International actors should be involved in the process to address Israel’s security concerns about lifting the blockade.
The blockade prevents development in Gaza. Egypt and Israel argue that the blockade is designed to cut off resources from terrorists, but really it has brought those who want a better life to their knees while the bad actors still have their rockets. Before the blockade, the United Nations provided food to 80,000 in Gaza; today it provides food to 830,000 .
Israel and Egypt also view the blockade as a success because it pushed Hamas into a financial crisis. This is short-term thinking. It ignores the fact that the economic devastation from the blockade weakens the public and private sectors in Gaza and strengthens extremists and smuggling enterprises. Repression and deprivation fuel terrorism; economic development and inclusion can fuel long-term peace.
A viable path beyond the current crisis would empower Gazans and weaken extremists who benefit from their suffering. The international community, especially nations in the region, should help Gazans rebuild their demolished homes and businesses. But who will invest if war will predictably break out every two years?
There is no military solution to this conflict. The status quo brings only continued pain, suffering and war. Promoting economic development and social interaction in Gaza is in the long-term security interest of Israel and the rest of the region. The relative calm that existed during Secretary of State John Kerry’s extended diplomatic talks between Israel and the Palestinians during 2013-14 shows that engaging in dialogue is the first step toward stopping the violence.
Ultimately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved with a final status agreement, and ending the violence and the blockade is a first step toward a permanent solution.