Which future for Gaza?

One month after the Turkish-Israeli agreement and the arrival of the first Turkish aid in Gaza, the issue of what future lies ahead for the Strip under a blockade regime that Israel is not intentioned to lift remains open and debated

 

After the agreement between Tel Aviv and Istanbul with which the two countries retrieved their bilateral relations, in early July a cargo ship delivering Turkish aid reached Gaza. Indeed, when the deal was reached, among the Turkish requests there was the end of the blockade imposed by the Israeli government on the Strip. However, among the Israeli positions there was the refusal of any significant change to the blockade regime. Therefore, a compromise was necessary and this was found in the consent given by Israel to Turkey to send aid towards Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, where any cargo directed to the Strip needs to be inspected by Israel before it can reach its final destination.

Due to this agreement, thus, on the 3rd July the vessel Lady Layla reached Ashdod and from there Gaza City, where it transferred 11 tonnes of aid, among which food, clothes, toys, products for personal hygiene and other goods of first necessity. Once in Gaza, the aid was put in the hands of the Ministry of Social Affairs, in charge of distributing 75% of all aid to the 75,000 poorest families who depend on subsidies (the remaining 25% is administered by the Palestinian Red Crescent).

 

In the words of Etimad al-Tarshawi (Secretary General of Planning and Development in the above-mentioned Ministry), this aid –even if only a small part of what Gaza needs- is extremely important for the families that receive it, since it helps to cope with an economic situation which is desperate to say the least.

Since June 2007, indeed, when Hamas won administrative control over Gaza, Israel has imposed severe restrictions to the movement of people and goods from and to the Strip. The Israeli policy –justified by the government as a measure which is necessary to prevent weapons from being delivered to Hamas and to prevent extremists from entering the Israeli territory and endangering the country’s security- did not succeed in weakening the group, that continues in fact to administer the Strip and to enjoy a broad popular support thanks to the services it provides to the population. On the contrary, the Israeli policy had the only effect of obstructing any possibility of economic development for the Strip, thus paving the way to the emergence of a thriving black market that benefits those who manage the smuggling networks and condemns instead to poverty the civilian population. Following the Israeli policy, in fact, the almost 2 million civilians who live in Gaza are confined within the borders of the Strip, prevented from moving to other places in search of job, and left without means of subsistence and without hopes of a future improvement.

Moreover, because of the blockade that prevents construction materials from reaching Gaza, houses, schools, and hospitals that had been destroyed in 2014 during the last conflict have not been rebuilt yet.

 

According to the UN, if this situation does not change in the short run, Gaza will become “uninhabitable” by 2020. Similar warnings have also come from the World Bank which has defined Gaza’s economy as being “on the verge of collapse”.

 

 

In light of this grim economic situation, it is clear how the aid coming from Turkey is vital to Gaza and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the agreement between Turkey and Israel (and in particular the section related to Gaza) has given rise to discordant reactions on part of the Palestinians.

On one side, there are those who have stressed the positive impact that Turkish aid can have on the conditions of Gazans and have underlined the necessity and the hope that Turkey continues its policy of concrete support made possible by the recent agreement. In this group, there is also Hamas that presented the agreement as a turning-point that can make Turkey more active in pressing Israel to lift the blockade.

On the other side, instead, there are those who criticize the terms of the agreement because they regard it as being not only insufficient but even counter-productive as far as the lifting of the blockade is concerned. What many civilians and analysts settled in Gaza maintain, in fact, is that the agreement fails to reckon the difference between embargo and blockade and that its efficiency is limited exclusively to the former. As far as the latter is concerned, in fact, the agreement merely allows the transfer of aid to the Strip but does not guarantee the opening of Gaza to international economy, risking in this way to crystallizing the blockade rather than paving the way to its lifting.

 

This stance highlights an important element: despite the undeniable importance of humanitarian aid for an area of the Levant where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, what Gaza really needs are development projects capable of revitalizing its economy. It is necessary a long-term and broader approach, capable –through initiatives and in loco development projects- of giving to Gaza a real economic structure and to the population residing there possibilities of work and self-sufficiency.

Without this kind of approach, Gaza will continue to be dependent on aid and its population will continue to be excluded from development, with the consequent risk that the territory might become a hotbed for extremism. Without alternatives and in a socio-economic context made of alienation, poor education, unemployment, and lack of direct contacts with the outer world -in fact- radical religious and political groups and organizations voted to violence and terrorism might easily exploit the despair of young Gazans to win support and attract recruits.

 

A situation of this kind would serve no one’s interests: it would not benefit Gaza, its population, Hamas, nor would it benefit Israel and Egypt – the countries responsible for the maintenance of the blockade.

With the Strip radicalized and exposed to the risk of proliferation of terrorism, Israel would find itself having at its borders a serious threat to its security – much more serious than the one that, according to the government’s rhetoric, there would be if Gaza was enabled to have its own economy and to maintain economic, trade and financial relations with the outside world.

A similar discourse applies to the Egyptian case: if a Gaza forcibly kept isolated and underdeveloped became an operative ground for extremist and terrorist groups, the Sinai would see itself exposed to a direct threat to its security and stability, and from the Sinai (that already is for Egypt the most volatile region and the most difficult to be controlled from Cairo) the threat would rapidly extend to the rest of Egypt.

 

However, within the Israeli establishment this reality is reckoned only by few, among whom Maj. Gen. H. Halevy. In a recent speech, he underlined how “if there is no improvement [of Gaza’s situation], Israel will be the first one to pay the price” and warned the Knesset that the reconstruction of Gaza is actually the best (and perhaps the only) way to avoid the risk of a future war.

 

It is thus in the hands of the international community the responsibility of using all the possible economic, political and diplomatic leverages to convince Israel that keeping Gaza underdeveloped does not serve its; to push Israel to include in the distension of relations with Turkey the lifting of the blockade; and to induce Egypt to modify its policy of support to the blockade.

 

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When religion obstructs growth – the Israeli case

The experience of Israel’s Haredi community shows how an exclusively religious education that rejects secularism is the door to a dangerous radicalism that threatens the whole social system

In the long, complex, and fascinating history of the European continent one of the most important turning points is the period 1650-1720, that marks the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment – a new era of thought that revolutionizes our worldview and our self-consciousness. The old, traditional, religious values– associated to a Middle Age that now belongs to History – begin to appear less solid and incontestable than they used to, and give way to reason and science.

It is in this context that the European philosophical, political and social landscape sees itself at the core of a new contraposition between secularism and religion. And of all the fields interested by this new debate, education – due to its influence on the future development of a society – receives particular attention. After centuries in which it had been prerogative of the Catholic monastic class and had proceeded hand in hand with religious studies, new demands and needs were emerging and an exclusively religious education didn’t seem sufficient anymore.

A new balance – with secularism dominating the public sphere and religion confined to the private one – began to take root in Europe; and education didn’t make an exception.

History, though, likes to repeat itself and the contraposition between religion/tradition on one hand, and secularism/modernity on the other, is now challenging the internal balances of all those countries, societies, and groups where religious identity is still the strongest one and religion a main pillar of collective life. And education is once again at the core of the debate.

For a State like Israel, born out of a specific religious identity and that since foundation has drawn from it its legitimacy, religion has always played a crucial role; but if most Israelis have found a positive balance between secularism and Judaism, this is not true for everyone.

Taking bus n.1 from the Old City of Jerusalem until Mea Shearim, you will find yourself in the heart of one of the oldest Jewish ultra-orthodox quarters, where women quietly walk on the streets dressed in their long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, and men come and go from Yeshivas and Kollels. In these schools – bulwark of the traditional Jewish education – men dedicate themselves to the exclusive study of the Torah and Talmud, in the name of religious observance, attachment to tradition and doctrinal devotion; and the Holy text is considered  not only the revelation of God’s word on the theological level, but the source of that pure Judaic law on which everyday life has to be built. Any form of secular education is on the contrary rejected.

Cut off from what happens outside the Yeshiva’s walls; auto-exiled from the dynamics of the outer society (whose secularism they fear as a deviant influence); cling to the exclusive religious dimension of their ultra-orthodox education, Haredim are inevitably led to a religious radicalism so entrenched in any aspect of their existence that intermediate possibilities do not exist: you are either ultra-orthodox or non-Jewish, and society is either religious or secular.

Such a religious radicalism – that first appeared among Jews in the XVIII century Europe as a reaction to the fear of cultural assimilation – can’t but have consequences that go beyond the Haredi quarter and represent a limit for the whole Israeli society, an obstacle for its growth, a threat to its stability, coherence and cohesion.

Haredim, in fact, due to an educational system that has provided them with religion as exclusive lens through which to interpret reality, give a radical religious lecture of the State and their own role in it.

It follows that they paradoxically don’t recognize the State of Israel in which they live because that would mean legitimizing a non-orthodox entity, and that they consider themselves as still living in exile rather than as part of the Israeli society. They therefore refuse to serve in the army as well as to pay taxes. And such a convenient isolationism can’t but create tensions (as many Israelis feel that different rules apply to different groups) and make the Israeli society a divided one. On the one hand, thus, those moderate Jews who have been building since 1948 a modern state; on the other hand the radical ultra-orthodox who deem legitimate their community only and don’t contribute to the growth of the State.

This last element should also be linked to the fact that the Haredim’s refusal of secular education in all its forms has created a “class of scholars” who generally lack relevant professional skills, and are thus condemned to unemployment and are reliant on state subsidies – a further financial burden on the shoulders of the rest of the Israeli society, and therefore a further source of tensions.

Moreover, blinded by the radical deviations of an exclusive religious mindset, Haredim condemn the diverse – meant as all those who embrace lifestyles irreconcilable with the saying of the Torah. This summer’s killing of a 16-year-old girl at a gay parade in Jerusalem at the hands of a Haredi man, more than just a sporadic act of violence by a disturbed individual, reveals the different speeds at which the Israeli society is moving and how its growth is curbed by the intolerance of part of it.

Equally negative is how the exclusive reference to a text that was edited millennia ago in different social contexts, makes the Haredi community one in which women are subordinate to men (after marriage it is the wife who works and only the husband has the right to proceed with his studies) and marginalized in the community’s public life. For a society like the Israeli one, that has never failed to recognize and defend gender equality, the attacks (both physical and verbal) perpetrated by some Haredim against non-orthodox women who according to them don’t behave properly (for instance praying at the Western Wall with the Torah in their hands or refusing to seat in the back seats of public buses) are dangerous sources of tensions and divisions.

The radicalism produced by the Haredim’s exclusive religious education and closure to secularism creates a situation in which the Israeli society – in order to peacefully survive – can’t but take into account such a reality and its distortions, and sacrifice part of its modernity (for instance not recognizing civil marriages) to prevent the schism between orthodox and non-orthodox from growing wider and more dangerous.

The importance of religious studies is something not even atheists can deny, as they are part of our heritage – source of our deepest values and oldest traditions. But the example of Israel’s Haredim shows that only if associated to (and – I stress – not substituted by) a secular education can they retain all their positive strength and make religion a means through which to fight radicalism, and not a source of it.

In the Jewish world, the importance of a balance between religion and secularism had already emerged in the XVIII century when Moses Mendelssohn created the Haskalà movement to open Jewish religious traditions to Enlightenment; and is now defended by Israel’s moderate orthodox and, even more so, by those institutions recently emerged to offer Haredim both religious and scientific studies.

A broader political and social support to their concrete commitment and an enthusiast promotion of their initiative among Haredi younger generations are the best way to address the problem of Israel’s homegrown religious radicalism, by starting from the fundamental relationship between religion and education.