Hamas, it would appear, has little to offer young people. And yet it has only grown in popularity since its founding during the 1st intifada in 1987, beating its rival Fatah in Gaza’s 2006 elections. Observers fail to appreciate that young Gazans rationally join Hamas because they lack better options. Hamas affiliation promises power, money and status, which, because of the Israeli blockade, are not readily had through education and employment.
The blockade is Hamas’ best friend. It all but destroys Gaza’s economy, making it impossible for people to support themselves through ordinary work. Gazans used to be able to cross into Israel to get better paying jobs. They used to be able to work in Gaza and export goods to foreign markets. The blockade destroys both of those options. If you are a Gazan and want to get ahead, work and school wont help much. Acquiring better job skills is only useful if you can sell those skills. Joining Hamas simply pays better.
Perversely, the more the blockade constricts the supply of everyday items – food, fuel, water, medicine – the more it enriches Hamas, because they control the little that gets in. Imagine if, in the US, organized crime didnt just control the supply of illegal drugs – imagine they imported and distributed everything from Pepsi to Tylenol to gasoline. That’s what the blockade does for Hamas – it turns Gaza’s Islamist ruling party into Gaza’s wholesaler for everything. And the worse things get for ordinary Gazans – the pricier that drinking water, wheat flour and medicine become – the more money goes to Hamas, and the more reason people have to join them. This is on top of the aid funneled through Hamas by the UN and other international organizations, to keep Hamas awash in cash, and thus more attractive to join – not to mention better armed. (Foreign aid, despite its good intentions, often serves to sustain bad governments, by giving them a ready source of income, and making them less answerable to their beleaguered population.)
Take away the blockade and let goods and people move unfettered into and out of Gaza, and Hamas loses big. Yes, thousands of rockets will enter Gaza and be fired into Israel. Newsflash: they already are! In the last year of Israel’s physical occupation of Gaza, Hamas (and others) fired more than 1000 rockets and RPGs into Israel. After the blockade in 2007, the total number of attacks continued to climb: more than 2800 in 2007, and more than 3700 in 2008. Attacks dropped off after Israel (and Egypt) tightened the borders even more – but they rebounded soon after, exceeding 2200 in 2012. The first 8 months of 2014 have already seen more than 4000 such attacks.
To gain some perspective on these numbers, consider that since 2001, Israel has been subject to about 19,000 rocket and mortar attacks – but only 28 Israelis have been killed. Gazans who have died in Israeli retaliation number in the thousands – most of whom are innocent, and many of whom are children.
Keeping weapons out by occupation or blockade has been tried and failed. The blockade actually makes things worse because it gives Hamas that much more cash to buy weapons. This is why ending the blockade is Israel’s best long-term bet for peace and political change.
Not only should Israel end the blockade, it should also rebuild Gaza’s airport and seaport, allow an unlimited number of workers in and out to work in Israel, and invest in rebuilding schools and hospitals. Doing this will make it profitable for Gazans to live their lives in the ordinary way: acquire skills, and sell one’s labor, or the fruit thereof, to the highest bidder. Present Israeli policy only guarantees a future of yet more violence.
N.b. While Hamas is a serious nuisance for Israel, it poses an existential threat to Egypt’s government, which only recently deposed the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a natural ally of Hamas. Most of the above arguments apply equally to Egypt, whose long-term security would be enhanced by open borders and free trade with Gaza. However the blockade of Gaza is entirely the work of Israel. Any country can, legally, close its borders to another country. Egypt and Israel have both done so with respect to Gaza. Israel however goes the extra mile by blockading Gaza’s Mediterranean coast, and keeping Gaza’s airport inoperative. While the border closures are legal (if poorly considered), the air and sea blockade is not.