The state of Gaza?

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As was predicted, the Israeli government is moving quickly to absolve itself of any and all responsibility for the people of the Gaza Strip. The latest sign of this has been the order signed by the Minister of Interior Ophir Pines declaring Gaza foreign territories and, as a consequence, the four Israeli checkpoints with Gaza international borders.

The events following the quick Israeli exit from the Rafah crossing point with Egypt left many perplexed. On the one hand, it was obvious that Palestinians in Gaza, locked up for years in a tiny strip of land (very tightly closed during the past five years), simply needed that breath of fresh air that opening the borders with Egypt provided. Hundreds (maybe thousands of Palestinians) crossed over undetected into Egypt, buying whatever they found on the shelves, sleeping on Al Arish beach and simply enjoying a day or two of freedom.

On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority appeared weak and irrelevant as border between Palestine and Egypt was opened without the ability (or rather the willingness) of the Palestinian police to control the waves of people just wanting to see the other side of the previously well-protected border.

As the Palestinian police, as well as their Egyptian counterparts, were able in due time to reassert their presence and their responsibility, many other questions quickly came up. The fact that thousands of Palestinians bought everything on the shelves on the Egyptian side shows the wide economic gap between the two economies. And as Palestinian economists were debating the issue of customs, it became clear that unless all of Palestine (specifically the West Bank) is one single integrated economic zone, keeping Gaza outside the current Israeli/Palestinian customs scheme will simply make the dire economic condition in the Gaza Strip even worse.

If Gaza is left outside the customs arrangement, any trade with Israel or even with West Bank Palestinians will have to be done as if two countries were trading each other. Palestinian officials are not willing to entertain the idea of Gaza being outside the customs zone, as specified in the Paris agreement between the PA and Israel, as long as the West Bank is not included in the same zone as well.

In the meantime, Israeli officials were quick to state that Gaza Strip doesn’t constitute a state.

So, in this limbo situation, what is the status of the Gaza Strip? While on paper Palestinians and Egyptians might be free to open the Rafah crossing between them and have people and goods move in and out freely, the economic issue looms much greater than most people ever expected. All of a sudden, the Israeli offer to use the Karnei crossing as the only crossing that will allow goods into the strip became attractive, especially for those Palestinian economists (which are quite a few) who are refusing the idea of total Palestinian separation from Israel.

Thirty eight years of occupation can’t, therefore, be erased that quickly or easily. When Israeli officials complained that all of a sudden Palestinians were not that thrilled with the Israeli exit, few had a full idea of what was really meant.

Palestinians are able to speak by phone between Gaza and the West Bank and Israel without the calls being considered international calls. The bulk of daily Gazan products, whether fuel, electricity or flour, is still coming from Israel or through Israeli ports.

The intertwining issues between Gaza and Israel are too complicated to be solved by remote control. Goodwill and efforts from the international community and by former World Bank president are no substitute for direct, serious bilateral talks.

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is embroiled in a struggle trying to save his political life within the Likud Party, someone on the Israeli side with enough decision-making power must quickly surface and begin these negotiations. If Shimon Peres is now the Israeli designate for running issues in Gaza, he should exert all efforts to solve this humanitarian as well as economic and political issue, so that Gaza does not become a big prison and the Palestinians of Gaza even poorer than they are now.

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