This summer living in Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip for me and many around the world existed only as the place from whence the rockets and pictures of destruction came and into which Israeli friends my age and hopes for peace had disappeared. This January, as a part of AIPAC’s Advanced Advocacy Mission, I had the opportunity to witness the inner workings of one of the few places where people and goods can pass in and out of the Strip in a more peaceful manner.
As we drove closer to the border between Israel and Gaza, the stillness of the surrounding countryside grew heavy. A former soldier with me at the crossing who had recently returned from Gaza this summer remarked, “I never expected to be this close again so soon.” Snaking across the horizon, there is nothing mistakable about the imposing barricade, nothing remotely natural about the concrete eyesore that seeks to mute the growing murmur to its west like a makeshift tarp around a hornet’s nest.
Kerem Shalom, literally Vineyard of Peace, is one of a handful of crossing points in operation. Hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid and private supplies pass through daily in a brilliantly choreographed operation run by Israel and involving the Palestinian Authority. To see the place at work is to witness one of the few manifestations of the Israeli inner struggle; the crossing represents the existential crisis between Israeli security and Palestinian self-determination. From a security standpoint, Israel cannot end the blockade of Gaza; to do so would be suicidal. From a humanitarian standpoint, they must; to not do so would be to damn the prospects of true Gazan autonomy and of ever achieving peace between our two peoples.
However, Israel cannot be accused of not taking active steps towards peace, which makes the current situation and international condemnation all the more frustrating. When Israel withdrew unilaterally from the strip in 2005, dismantling 21 settlement communities who had lived in the strip for generations, the occupants of the Strip responded by destroying the billions of dollars of greenhouse agriculture left for the residents of Gaza, bulldozing the four remaining synagogues, and beginning to dig tunnels into Israel in order to terrorize its population. A year later they elected Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization that is responsible for much of the malaise plaguing their own population and launching thousands of rockets into Israeli population centers.
While on the Egyptian side of the three-way border over a thousand Gazan houses have been demolished by the government to provide a security buffer zone, the Israeli government bends over backwards to ensure humanitarian supplies enter the strip in a manner that also maintains Israeli security even as Hamas officials routinely call for Israel’s destruction.
While none can claim Israel occupies Gaza, none can deny that the blockade which ensures Israelis can live with less fear of rockets and terrorists coming from the strip also contributes to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. The economic losses from the blockade have been devastating, and an obliterated economy with few signs of hope is certainly a factor in the rise of terror groups such as Hamas and feelings of increasing desperation on behalf of the Palestinian people.
Many would say, myself included, that Kerem Shalom and the other crossing points have become necessary evils, for the time being. Gaza is not the West Bank, and ending the blockade unilaterally, before a stable Palestinian Authority presence is resumed within the Strip, would be sheer insanity.
But any two-state negotiations cannot ignore the hornet’s nest in our backyard. We allow concrete and other humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza, but none can say whether these materials are used for peaceful or nefarious purposes. Until UNRWA’s presence in Gaza is a force for stability instead of a place to house Hamas rockets, it seems Israel is on her own in this regard.
As we pulled away from Kerem Shalom, I noticed a small hand-written sign that read in Hebrew, “Bo’achim L’shalom,” Come in Peace. An easy enough request from the Israeli side, where we are blessed with a rambunctious but stable democracy and free and fair elections. The challenge of my generation, however, will be to ensure that our brothers and sisters in Gaza have the ability to exit in peace as well.