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What the %*$& happened here?

Nigel Roberts's picture

Gaza City, January 9, 2010

"I don't see much sense in that," said Rabbit. "No," said Pooh humbly, "there isn't. But there was going to be when I began it. It's just that something happened to it along the way."

Winter in Gaza

I first visited this place in 1994. Even then, the name was synonymous with misery. What I remember, though, was a crowded, contentious place possessed with energy and, in the minds of many, the hope of an end to 46 years of exile.

    Photos © Natalia Cieslik
Rex Bryan, Yezid Sayigh (from left), and I on the right during our trip to Gaza.

I haven’t been here for four years, and am here on WDR business with Yezid Sayigh (our West Bank and Gaza case study author), Rex Brynen and Natalia Cieslik of the WDR core team. Today, Gaza feels dead. It’s cold. A few green Hamas flags droop from the electricity lines. Much of the damage from the battles of December 2008 has been cleared away, but bullet-strikes run up and down many of the apartment blocks. There is little color anywhere; little of the efflorescent graffiti that once covered walls, few advertizing bill-boards, hardly any of the posters of ‘martyrs’ once claimed by contending political parties. As we drive the length of the Strip, the streets are almost empty.

Only a few Gazans can get out of the Strip now, almost all across the southern border into Egypt. Trade with Israel is a fraction of what it once was. The large modern facility Israel built at Erez to manage the flow of daily laborers is almost empty. Little except basic foods comes in through the Israeli cargo terminals, and only a few cut-flowers and vegetables are allowed out. Everything else comes in across the Egyptian border, most of it through a network of more than 100 tunnels dug by entrepreneurs beneath the fence at Rafahpetrol, cigarettes, bottled water, clothes, cement, allegedly 4-wheel drives, and even a lion and a zebra for the Gaza zoo.

This is one of the world’s more bizarre economies. There is virtually no production outside agriculture, and the population of approximately 1.5 million lives largely on cash transfers. Most donors won’t deal with Hamas, so they channel salary support for Gazan civil servants through the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (given today’s hostility between the two Palestinian governments, many recipients are paid to stay at home and not work for the Hamas administration). Donors also finance the welfare distributed by UNRWA. Hamas’ own funds come mainly from abroad, allegedly in cash, from Iran and other sympathizers. In 2007, well before Operation Cast Lead, real GNI per capita had already fallen from about US$1,500 per annum in 1994 to just under US$1,000.


What went wrong? There is far more to it than this blog can aspire to deal with, but understanding the nature of the Oslo Accords is one way into the question.

    The war with Israel has left Gaza's limited industrial infrastructure destroyed.

The 1993 Declaration of Principles that set up the Oslo peace process left the tough issues (“Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders….”) for “final settlement” negotiations; these were supposed to conclude within five years. The idea was to build mutual trust and confidence, and then tackle the questions that seemed too tough to handle at the outset. What wasn’t clear, though, was how trust was supposed to develop between such deeply suspicious enemieswithout any provision for disinterested third-party arbitration. Soon enough, verbal negotiations were being supplemented by violence. It’s been a long downhill slide much of the time since then.

This is not the Gaza anyone envisaged when PLO Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands so awkwardly on the While House lawn 16 years ago. It’s poor, dirty and hyper-crowded. It exudes hopelessness and anger. And it’s ruled by a regime which formally rejects Israel’s right to exist.

Some in Gaza suggested to us that Israel has the Palestinians where they want them: divided, with Hamas locked up in Gaza and wary of firing rockets across the fence. That’s not what I hear from thoughtful Israeli colleagues, though. Our WDR research tells us that existential conflicts like this one don’t just fade away. When decisive victory isn’t an option, active resolution is needed. Resolution in this case will require a more courageous effort by all parties to confront the issues that were deferred in the 1990sand a greater willingness by the international community to sit on the fence, not to one or other side of it.


One wonders what the Israelis are really up to ( as they keep the international media out of Gaza. Its a strange world when we have to rely on a World Bank blog (thoughtful that it is) to find out what's happening in one of the most conflicted parts of the globe. You say: "Today, Gaza feels dead. It’s cold....." and its certainly the case that this existential conflict isn't fading away. But what has happened is that with the world's eyes forcibly averted from the crisis, we're not giving it the attention it deserves anymore. The question raised, that 'Israel has the Palestinians where they want them' is harder to dismiss, even if 'That’s not what (you) hear from thoughtful Israeli colleagues.' And your appeal to the international community 'to sit on the fence, not to one or other side of it,' seems a bit odd in the circumstances. Human rights abuses ( by Israel or Hamas require a bit more than fence sitting. With the media excluded from Gaza the international community is given no option but to sit this one out. Maybe thats the Israeli objective after all?

Leonard: many thanks for the comments. What I meant was that more insightful Israelis aren't as comfortable as some might think they would be with the fact that Gaza is no longer a headliner in Israel (on most days). The greater sense of urgency I picked up this time is due, I believe, to a concern that the Gaza pressure cooker could shift Hamas away from its nationalist roots towards an identity that owes more to global jihadism. I'll write about this shortly. The fence comment is a reference to the lack of dispassionate third-party involvement in Middle Eastern peace processes up to now. Our case study author Yezid Sayigh believes this is one of the main reasons for Oslo's failure. Nigel

Submitted by Raja Khalidi on
Hi Nigel, I just saw your interesting blog and reading this entry I wonder: in looking at the failures of Oslo is it the third-party involvement that was lacking or the dispassionate involvement? It could equally be argued that a) politically there was too much one-sided third-party involvement (US tilted to Israel) at least for the past 15 years and that b) the rest of the "quartet", including the UN/IFIs and the EU were much too dispassionate in their involvement (their impact neutralized by the need to conform to Israeli guidelines/parameters). So Oslo failed for lots of reasons, but if anything there have always been too many foreign cooks in the Palestinian kitchen, and too few on the Israeli side. looking forward to seeing the report!

Submitted by sima kanaan on
Particularly given the restrictions on reporting from Gaza, it would seem appropriate to convey more liberally the magnitude of the human suffering, particularly as it results from the "siege", the impact of which seems to far exceed that of the actual 2009 bombardement - putting actual and tragic cost of human lives aside. As is, the "blog" certainly does not convey the sense captured in the title! That aside, I agree with Doyle that sitting on the fence seems to be too minimalist of an expectation of the internatioanl community. Another aspect of the conflict that is worth highlighting is the consistent effort on part of the Israelis to uproot any forms of non-violent resistance, a topic that is (thankfully) getting increasing attention though, alas, perhaps not in the US media.

Sima: Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. The title of the blog in fact refers to the outcome of a peace process that seemed to some to have the potential of ending this enduring conflict. I had no intention of underplaying the suffering of those affected by what actually happened, and this is covered more directly in a subsequent post, "Trapped", which includes a hyperlink to Laurence Wright's sobering article in the New Yorker. In the specific context of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, I would argue that "sitting on the fence" -- i.e. genuine impartiality -- would amount to far more than a minimal change in the behavior of some key external parties.

Submitted by sima kanaan on
Hi Nigel - Just saw your latest blogs on the same. Great stuff! Many thanks.

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