As part of their embargo of the Gaza strip in 2008, Israeli officials told American diplomats “on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge,” according to a secret diplomatic cable sent to Washington by U.S. officials in Tel Aviv.
The leaked cabled, obtained by WikiLeaks and posted on the website of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday, was held up by Middle East activists and bloggers as evidence of a coordinated attempt by the Israeli government to starve the territory, which is governed by the Islamist organization Hamas, without regard for the human rights of Gaza’s citizens. Some scholars even argued that the embargo, which has been eased but remains in effect, violates the Geneva Convention.
American diplomats wrote in the cable, headlined “Cashless in Gaza,” that Israeli officials “intend to keep the Gazan economy functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.” Juan Cole, a Middle East scholar and professor of history at the University of Michigan, noted on his blog Informed Consent that 55 percent of Palestinians in Gaza remain “food-insecure,” and cited a two-year study by the medical journal “The Lancet” that found that 10 percent of children in the territory show signs of stunting from malnutrition. “I’d call that a humanitarian crisis,” Cole added.
The leaked memo also sheds new light on the challenges Palestinian officials face as they attempt to build what many view as a de facto Palestinian state through economic development. With direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians all but dashed, leaders such as Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have focused instead on building up Palestinian infrastructure and attracting international investment, hoping to convince international bodies and sympathetic countries to unilaterally recognize the existence of a Palestinian state.
The cable confirms the fears of some prominent Palestinian officials that Israeli officials would close off financial channels to the Gaza strip, making it difficult to maintain a monetary connection between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-governed Gaza. That monetary connection, many officials say, is essentially the last link left between the divided territories. “The role, in terms of maintaining this unity in the financial system, is essential, because if God forbid this unity is separated, the possibility of coming back to unity becomes almost impossible,” the Palestinian central banker, Jihad Al-Wazir, told Need to Know in an interview last year.
In particular, Al-Wazir noted, the Palestinian government in Ramallah still pays the salaries of more than 75,000 people in Gaza, and the average size of the families living on those salaries is seven, meaning that more than half a million people are dependent on the Palestinian Authority’s ability to send cash to Gaza. Palestinian officials have warned that the failure to pay those salaries would worsen the relationship between Hamas and Fatah, and cause “further deterioration in support for” the moderate Palestinian Authority in Gaza, according to the cable.
But as the leaked cable shows, Israeli officials were concerned primarily with trying to prevent Hamas, which the document referred to as “the terrorist regime,” from obtaining a “larger pool of funds in Gaza, no matter the origin.” Israeli officials also concluded that many of the workers on the Palestinian Authority’s payroll were actually members of Hamas. “They have therefore determined that full coverage of the payroll is contrary to Israel’s security interests,” American officials wrote in the memo.
Israel’s goal, then, may have been to keep the Hamas government only on the “brink” of collapse. But as Al-Wazir argued, Gaza and its citizens may already be there. “The biggest problem we face in Gaza is to try to sustain the trading, the relationship between merchants in Gaza and their suppliers in Israel, because the Israeli banking system cut off their relationship with Gaza,” Al-Wazir said. “The economy is totally collapsed.”