Time to lead rather than be led in Middle East diplomacy


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jan Egeland
Jan Egeland

Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

Despite the $5.4bn pledged at the Cairo donors’ conference last October, Gaza remains in ruins. This cannot continue.

When I visited the bombed-out wreckage of Gaza at the time, the conference was seen as a success, creating a glimmer of hope for families who sat amid the rubble. They thought better days were ahead, the blockade would be lifted and reconstruction would actually begin, creating jobs for the unemployed. That optimism has gone.

Growing bitterness

Over 100,000 men, women and children remain displaced, unable to rebuild their homes. The UN-designed mechanism to allow building materials to pass through the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip has been slow to make any visible impact. Bitterness is growing over the scarcity of cement and other materials making it through. The blockade is also preventing exports and economic opportunities. On the streets, the talk is no longer about how to rebuild, but about desperation and possible war. Militants are again telling people “you have nothing left to lose”.

The lack of building material is down to strict Israeli restrictions rather than shortages of money. Israel claims the restrictions are necessary for its security. If that is the case, and Israeli security is really the reason for the crippling border closures, I have a solution: let security personnel from Heathrow or JFK airports control the crossing of people and goods at Gaza’s borders.

Israeli politicians feel safe when they pass through the world’s busiest airports – even in the age of international terror – so the Americans and Europeans should convince Israel to transfer responsibility for border security from its young soldiers to real professionals, experienced in detecting security threats and explosives.

It’s hard to see how Israeli could oppose such a proposal without signalling that the Gaza blockade is actually not about security, but is in reality designed to foster regime change by strangling reconstruction, development and hope – in violation of international law. As the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has stated, the closure is now a collective punishment against the civilians of Gaza.

Slow reconstruction

If all the houses, schools and other buildings destroyed during the war last summer are to be rebuilt over the next five years, and Gaza’s housing needs are fully met, approximately 430,000 tons of basic construction material will need to enter Gaza every month. Even at their highest, levels this year have failed to reach a quarter of that amount. In March, construction material entering Gaza peaked at 64,000 tons. At this rate, it will take decades to complete the reconstruction.

The blockade continues to blight the lives of tens of thousands of women, children and men who have nothing to do with terrorism. The international community is almost unanimous in verbally denouncing its illegality. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated that the blockade of Gaza must end, the EU has called for the immediate and unconditional lifting of the border closure, and both the ICRC and the Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have spoken out against the punitive collective nature of the blockade under international law.

Oslo agreement

In 1993, I co-organised the Norwegian Channel that led to the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Through active international diplomacy, Gaza was able to get Palestinian self-rule for the first time. Palestinian-Israeli joint industrial parks were planned, tens of thousands of Palestinians continued to cross the border into Israel for work every week, the Israeli stock exchange surged and Shimon Peres declared “Gaza can become the Singapore of the Middle East”.

The contrast with today’s dismal situation could not be starker. The IMF reported a contraction of Palestinian economic activity in 2014. The desperation in today’s Gaza is damning both for the Israeli and Palestinian political and military elites, and for the Quartet of U.S., UN, EU and Russian mediators. Things have to change. Israelis are not safe when their Palestinian neighbours are left without hope. International players cannot accept spending scarce public funds on rebuilding from the rubble of each new war.

The EU can lead

For those of us who have mediated in the many frustrated peace efforts since Oslo, it is clear that the Quartet – in particular the EU and the U.S. – must work with regional actors to take the lead, instead of being led along by Israeli and Palestinian politicians incapable of breaking their peoples out of the vicious cycle of hatred and revenge.

Instead of ritualistic donor conferences and new declarations of intent, Brussels and Washington should set deadlines for Palestinian elections and ending Israel’s blockade. They should impose compromise solutions. There are many excellent plans hidden away in drawers that could bring security to Israelis and justice to Palestinians, but they need to be driven by international pressure.

So let 2015 be different. Start by giving hope to Gaza. We have seen over the last 20 years that there are no entities on earth less qualified to control Gaza’s borders than those doing it now. It is time to lead rather than be led in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

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