Israel's massive blockade of Gaza continues, but it is easy to lose sight of what this really means. As the BBC reports, the blockade is so extensive that the Israeli government even bars musical instruments from entering the territory. Little is allowed to leave Gaza either. Israel also bans virtually all exports to the outside world, causing Palestinians who live in the territory to suffer unemployment rates of 40%.
On Tuesday, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter highlighted some of the most egregious examples of this policy. In a speech to parents and graduating students at a UN-run Gaza school, Carter stated:
I understand even paper and crayons are treated as "security hazards" and not permitted to enter Gaza. I sought an explanation for this policy in Israel, but did not receive a satisfactory answer - because there is none.
This comes just months after two visiting U.S. Members of Congress highlighted Israel's barring of lentils and pasta. As the Jerusalem Post reported in February, the Israeli Defense Force responded to the criticisms by allowing transport of the dreaded legumes and starches into the territory. Still, the underlying economic strangulation continues.
Israel imposed its Gaza blockade following Hamas' 2006 electoral victory and subsequent expulsion of rival Palestinian faction Fatah from the Gaza Strip. It was rumored at the time that Fatah soldiers were planning a U.S.-backed coup against Hamas leaders, despite Hamas' political victory.
More recently, life for Gaza residents grew worse in the aftermath of Hamas' rocket attacks on Israel and Israel's subsequent bombardment of the territory. During his recent Middle East trip, former President Carter spoke to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz and highlighted the new realities faced by Palestinian civilians in Gaza:
To me, the most grievous circumstance is the maltreatment of the people in Gaza, who are literally starving and have no hope at this time. According to the UN, 41,000 of their homes are either severely damaged or destroyed. And for five months they haven't gotten a single sack of cement, or single sheet of plaster. They're being treated like savages.
In order to cope with this absence of construction materials, Palestinians have even resorted to making bricks out of mud and straw to build their homes. The BBC has an online photo album showing exactly this.
Not only are there obvious humanitarian arguments against Israel's blockade, but the political arguments are important too. Of the two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas has deeper democratic roots than its competitor Fatah. A two-state solution with Israel is impossible without Hamas' inclusion in the process.
Towards this goal, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gaza the day before Carter did and also called for an end to Israel's blockade. And as I previously wrote, President Obama has also hinted at the necessity of Hamas participation for long-term peace.
But so long as Israel's blockade of Gaza continues, it is difficult to imagine a real path to peace. Perhaps that is why today's Ha'aretz reports that the U.S. has sent Israel "a diplomatic note officially protesting Gaza policy and demanding a more liberal opening of the border crossings to facilitate reconstruction."
For its part, Hamas appears to be ready for full negotiations. During his Tuesday speech in Gaza, Carter also mentioned his conversation with Hamas' head in Syria:
Khaled Mashaal has assured me that Hamas will accept a final status agreement negotiated by the Palestinian Authority and Israel if the Palestinian people approve it in a referendum. Hamas has offered a reciprocal ceasefire with Israel throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
The real question is whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be induced to take Hamas up on its offer.