Middle East


Lifting the Gaza Blockade: A U.S. Imperative

Two young girls in a destroyed neighborhood of Gaza. (Photo: Arthur Neslen)

In February 2006, Hamas won the legislative election in the Gaza Strip, lawfully taking power in June 2007. Shortly thereafter, Israel declared Gaza a "hostile territory" and announced that, in addition to military operations, "additional sanctions will be placed on the Hamas regime in order to restrict the passage of various goods to the Gaza Strip and reduce the supply of fuel and electricity. Restrictions will also be placed on the movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip."

Israel has prohibited the flow of goods—from food and construction materials to crayons and soap—so aggressively, the people of Gaza have been left struggling for survival. By 2010, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that the number of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty had tripled since the imposition of the blockade. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a host of other organizations have referred to the blockade as "collective punishment," thus making it a violation of the Geneva Convention.

In December 2008 and January 2009, under the name Operation Cast Lead, Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, killing more than 1,400 people; destroying or badly damaging houses, schools, hospitals, mosques and businesses; and devastating Gaza's infrastructure. Despite billions pledged in international aid, the blockade has rendered Gaza incapable of rebuilding what was destroyed. As the editors of The Nation argue, none of this would have been possible without the United States—"without tens of billions in U.S. military aid, without dozens of U.N. vetoes cast by Washington, without the State Department's back-room strong-arming of other nations." The United States has an imperative to pressure Israel to lift the Gaza blockade on three accounts: a legal basis, a moral obligation and as a vital component of pursuing U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

Israel's position

Although Israel no longer maintains a permanent military presence in the territory, Israel continues to exercise control over Gaza's airspace, coastline, borders, telecommunications, water, electricity, sewage systems and population registry. With Egypt, Andrew Sanger writes, "Israel also controls the flow of people and property in and out of the Gaza strip. It has complete control over the movement of persons from Gaza to the West Bank, and vice versa. For these reasons, the United Nations, the United States, international human rights organizations and many legal commentators reject Israel's assertion that it is no longer occupying the Gaza Strip." While denying that it occupies Gaza, Israel classifies the Gaza blockade as legitimate "economic warfare."

Israel has offered several justifications for the blockade, among them security concerns, a means of exerting political pressure and retaliation for the imprisonment of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. (Shalit's release in October has not resulted in an easing of the blockade.) Israel's primary reasoning, however, is to prevent weapons and munitions from reaching Hamas, which Israel argues would then be used against Israeli civilians. If Israel were searching incoming vessels for weapons and letting humanitarian items through, perhaps this reasoning would stand on more solid ground, but suffice it to say that as long as Hamas remains in control politically, Israel can be counted on to continue enforcement of the blockade, cutting off the lifeblood of the people of Gaza as its twisted way of pressuring their political leadership.


The argument that the Gaza blockade is a violation of international humanitarian law is a rather clear case. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits collective punishment, the use of starvation as a means of warfare and targeting of civilians, and states that any civilian harm must be proportionate to anticipated military advantage. Additionally, if a blockade leaves a population without adequate food or adequate objects of survival, the state imposing the blockade must allow humanitarian supplies to pass through. Israel contends that it is not bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention, although it has failed to specify its grounds for this contention.

Israel is also in violation of Additional Protocol I, which states that an occupier is "prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive." Even if Israel claims that the purpose of the blockade is not to cut off supplies necessary to the population's survival, if that is the effect, the blockade violates international law.

Make no mistake; that is the effect. According to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the amount of goods allowed to enter Gaza in June 2010 was only 19 percent of the average in June 2007. The United Nations has found that less than a quarter of the provisions necessary for daily survival reach the territory. Restriction of exports, farming and fishing as well as travel to the West Bank or East Jerusalem also precludes the people of Gaza from developing and sustaining a viable economy. This deprivation is perpetuated deliberately and systematically by Israel. Sanger writes that in November 2008, a cable reported that "Israel wanted the Gaza economy 'functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.' In order to achieve this goal, Israeli officials employed 'mathematical formulas to monitor foodstuffs and other basic goods entering the Strip to ensure that the amount of supplies entering was neither less nor more than the amount Israel permitted.'" Dov Weisglass, advisor to then-Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert, said that the ultimate objective of Israel's strategy is "to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is inflicted not only externally through the blockade, but also internally through destructive military operations such as Operation Cast Lead. In September 2009, a U.N. Fact-Finding Mission concluded that "there is evidence indicating serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed by Israel during the Gaza conflict, and that Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity." Through its tacit support of this campaign and its explicit support of Israel as a military partner, the United States has become an accomplice in these crimes. If the implications of acting as partner to an unambiguously illegal blockade and occupation are not enough to compel the United States to rebuke Israel and pressure it to liberate Gaza, the moral implications should add considerable weight to this U.S. imperative.


The blockade imposed on Gazans, coupled with the destruction of Israel's military attacks, has taken lives, devastated the economy, shattered livelihoods and robbed dignity. The Nation writes, "More than 60 percent of the people are food insecure, and nearly 80 percent depend on the U.N. for sustenance, with rising levels of malnutrition. The destruction of Gaza's infrastructure has been comprehensive, with the reduction in electricity supply damaging food production and storage and dangerously limiting access to safe drinking water." Profound depression and insomnia as well as mental health problems among children who have witnessed the carnage of war can be counted alongside the physical damages. With so much torn out from under their feet, the people of Gaza are desperate for their lives to be returned to them. Or perhaps better put, they are desperate for the opportunity to rebuild their lives on their own, and they cannot accomplish that with the blockade in place.

During the 23 days Operation Cast Lead, Israel bombarded Gaza by land, sea and air, killing more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, and laying ruin to homes, schools, mosques, hospitals, factories, government buildings, cultural institutions, energy supplies, telecommunication systems, roads, arable land, greenhouses, livestock, groundwater resources and irrigation networks. Essentially nothing was spared. Three-quarters of Gaza was without electricity during the conflict, and approximately 500,000 people were without running water. The bombing of one school killed about 40 kids and injured 100 more. The cost of reconstruction has been estimated at about $1.3 billion, but of course, how does one put a price on loss of life and the demolition of a society? The United Nations reported in September 2009, "Families are still living amid the rubble of their former homes long after the attacks ended, as reconstruction has been impossible due to the continuing blockade."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 34 health facilities were damaged or destroyed during the attacks, dealing a fatal blow to a healthcare system that was already crippled. Tony Laurance, head of office for the WHO in the West Bank and Gaza, says, "It is impossible to maintain a safe and effective healthcare system under the conditions of siege that have been in place now since June 2007." Health professionals are prohibited from leaving Gaza to undertake medical training; experts from the West Bank are refused access to Gaza staff for training purposes; and medical equipment is blocked from entering the territory.

All of this has a horrifying effect on medical care in a place where it is badly needed. "Even more shocking," says Navi Pillay, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, "is that well-intentioned individuals from many countries who arranged for medical equipment to be delivered to facilities that need it, have been killed for their efforts." Such deplorable conditions should ignite outrage and action in the country that props Israel up and allows it to carry out this collective punishment. As Roanne Carey writes, "The people of Gaza are asking for help, justice and the rule of law." If the United States were to help Gazans fight for these basic rights, it would find that it was not only fulfilling a moral imperative, but that it was also advancing its strategic interests in the region.

Strategic interests

With very few exceptions, Washington has acted alone in helping craft Israel's illegal policies toward Gaza. The European Union, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (who wishes to wrest power from Hamas) have colluded to an extent, but the United States clearly holds the torch in arming and funding Israel. From much of the rest of the international community, the Gaza blockade has invoked condemnation. No incident brought to light this condemnation more openly than Israel's attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May 2010.

The flotilla, which carried humanitarian aid and construction materials for the people of Gaza, was raided by Israel—violently. Nine activists were killed and many wounded. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his typical belligerent fashion, refused to apologize and defended the raid, saying, "This was not the Love Boat. It was a hate boat. … These weren't pacifists, these weren't peace activists, they were violent supporters of terrorism."

Many of the ship's crew were Turkish, and the incident sparked a rift in Turkish-Israeli relations from which the two countries have not recovered. International outrage was widespread, eliciting calls to end the blockade. The U.N. Security Council even demanded an end to the blockade, but Washington managed to dilute the official statement and forestall an independent investigation. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed only tepid disapproval, calling the situation in Gaza "unsustainable" but not going much further than that.

New Statesman frames the exceptionalism embodied in Washington's reaction pointedly: "One can only imagine the reaction if it had been Iranian Revolutionary Guards airdropping on to a flotilla of aid ships in international waters, killing unarmed activists in the process and imprisoning British citizens."

Turkey has downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel and expelled its ambassador. A year and a half after the incident, the likelihood of Turkish-Israeli relations being normalized appears slimmer than ever. Mohammed Ayoob writes that Turkey's hard, independent stance signifies the coming of age of Turkey as a strategic power straddling the Middle East and Europe. "The Turkish stance, coming in the wake of democratic uprisings in the region, will further align Turkey with mainstream Arab opinion on Palestine and Israeli occupation. This will boost Turkish standing in the Arab world and put increasing pressure upon Arab governments to take a more active role on Palestine. Countries in democratic transition are already under domestic pressure to take a harder line with Israel, and there is talk of Egypt and Jordan withdrawing their ambassadors, following Turkey's example."

Washington must not underestimate the importance of Turkey, a crucial NATO member as well as a lynchpin in Middle East geopolitical relations. Turkey recently demonstrated its diplomatic clout by pressuring Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria—administering sanctions and travel bans, freezing financial assets, and publicly denouncing Assad as early as August—utilizing leverage that should be seen as invaluable to the West. Turkey could also be of unique strategic advantage in negotiating a diplomatic solution with Iran, should Washington ever decide that is something it wants. Turkey's partnership alone—setting aside the many other strategic partners the United States has alienated or jeopardized by failing to put pressure on Israel—should outweigh any domestic reasons that Washington has for continuing down this unjust and unsustainable path.

While the Zionist faction in the United States is no doubt a powerful and outspoken one, voices of dissent are rising. Two members of Congress—Barbara Lee of California and Keith Ellison of Minnesota—wrote a letter to Obama imploring him to lead the nation in working with U.S. allies to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which they say "punishes ordinary citizens and strengthens Hamas' control over commerce. … Israel's long-term security interests are not served by the blockade of civilian goods to Gaza, as it provides fodder for those who promote extremism against innocent Israelis."

CIA Director David Petraeus has expressed similar sentiments, arguing that Washington's defense of Israel threatens U.S. interests in the Middle East, where Islamist extremists use the oppression of Palestine as a recruiting tool and heads of state have become increasingly wary of associating with the United States. In response to the flotilla attack, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said, "Friends of Israel—and I count myself a friend of Israel—should be saying to the Israelis that the blockade actually strengthens Hamas' grip on the economy and on Gaza, and it's in their own interests to lift it and allow these vital supplies to get through."

While serving as secretary of defense, Robert Gates argued that the United States needs to "reprogram" the Pentagon for the new age, shifting our focus from brute force to smart power and keeping the big picture within our sights. Gates writes, "The most likely catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland—for example, that of a U.S. city being poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack—are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states." The crisis in Gaza, although directly affecting a population of 1.5 million people, has ripples that expand throughout the Arab world and impact a far greater number of people, some of whom are desperate and angry. Through this lens, Gaza can be seen as a potential epicenter for significant unwelcomed ramifications.

Consider this account from Carey, a Code Pink delegate who witnessed the horrific aftermath following the bombing of the American International School in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead: "The school, which taught American progressive values to Palestinian kids in grades K-12, was bombed by U.S.-supplied Israeli F-16s in early January. The Israelis claimed, without supplying evidence, that Hamas fighters had fired rockets from the school. Now several hundred kids have not only lost the school they dearly loved; they have been given a very different lesson in American values, one no doubt unintended by the school's founders and teachers."

When Obama gave his "A New Beginning" speech in Cairo in June 2009, he gave many Muslims the impression that relations between them and the West could be positively transformed, sending a wave of hopefulness across the Middle East. This wave soon subsided, however, when the words failed to congeal into meaningful action. If the United States is interested in doing something that will have lasting effect—something that reverberates from Lebanon and Jordan to Yemen and Bahrain, from the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia to the many countries bubbling with volatility—it might find that appropriate action in Gaza would restore American credibility in a way words never could.


Through its unconditional support of Israel, the United States has painted itself into a corner, now finding itself in a position where systematic punishment of a people is needed to perpetuate it. As Netanyahu and Israel continue to drift further to the extreme right, digging into an increasingly intractable and self-destructive posture, the United States has allowed itself to get dragged along with them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal recently met in Cairo to negotiate an agreement on a new unity government in an effort to reverse a six-year severance of their factions' relationship. In this case, where two bitter rivals have come to the table to reconcile their differences, Washington opposed the reconciliation—because Israel opposes anything seen as legitimizing Hamas. In reaction to a provisional Cairo-sponsored deal in May, the United States threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority—again, painting itself into a corner.

Peace talks are dead; the Quartet has proven itself ineffectual; and the United States cannot even find the courage to soften its position on Palestine's application for statehood. The United States is the only country that can effectively influence Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza and return humanity to the people of Gaza, and it has a number of imperatives compelling it to do so. However, at the moment, the tail is wagging the dog, and the United States is allowing Israel to walk both states down a dangerous and destructive path. The time for irresolution and cowardice is over. The United States must openly and emphatically pressure Israel to lift the Gaza blockade.

Joshua Pringle is a journalist, novelist and singer living in New York City, and is the senior editor for Worldpress.org. He is currently studying international relations in the master's program at New York University.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.