The Middle East is in disarray, but in Gaza, of all places, there are fragile hints of better days.

Two weeks ago, for the first time since Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel permitted produce exports from Gaza into Israel and the West Bank.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged Gaza’s plight during a visit to the area in February.

"The present state of Gaza," he said, "is a rebuke: to those of us in the international community who over the years have made so many promises unfulfilled; to those who have offered leadership and failed to provide it; to the politics both Israeli and Palestinian which have been unable to create the circumstances for peace. The people of Gaza have been the casualties of this failure. The last conflict left Gaza devastated and its people worn down and impoverished."[1]

Blair failed to mention the deaths of over 1,200 Palestinians—most of them civilian, many of them women and children—in the most recent conflict in the summer of 2014. With such a toll on both infrastructure and human life, Gazans’ hopes today are not focused on peace, but rather on simply having the elementary ability to trade and travel beyond the open air prison that is Gaza.

While the Israeli government remains committed to reducing its trade with Gaza—a policy it has followed for more than two decades—during the last eighteen months it has been forced to open the trade spigot, if only slightly. This minor improvement is meant to preempt a growing deterioration in Gaza that could lead once again to war, as it did last summer. At that time Hamas demanded that Israel permit Gaza to trade, and Israel’s refusal helped spur Hamas to engage in the conflict.

Notwithstanding the marginal relaxation of Israel’s trade regime, imports to Gaza remain at less than half the 2007 average—restrictions described by the World Bank at the time as unsustainable. Fewer than 20 export-laden trucks now exit the Strip per month. Even with the recent produce exports, sending a few eggplants to Tel Aviv consumers is a minuscule step.

Netanyahu's move to increase trade slightly was precipitated by Egypt's decision in July 2013 to all but seal Egypt, via its formal border at Rafah as well as through illicit tunnels, from Gaza's exports and imports. The newly installed government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, determined to isolate Gaza and its problems from Egypt, has made it clear to Israel and all Palestinian factions that Gaza's economic and humanitarian welfare is an Israeli responsibility.

Thus, even as Israel pursues its interest in reducing interaction with Gaza to a negligible provision of humanitarian assistance, it increasingly recognizes the perils of endemic instability that such a policy produces in the Strip.

And Palestinians in Gaza, most notably the Hamas cadre, are acutely aware of the political and even security value of restoring a measure of economic stability and prosperity. In a recent discussion in Cairo, for example, deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau, Musa Abu Marzuk, spoke of shared Israeli and Palestinian interest in creating a solid economic foundation in Gaza in order to forestall the prospect of war.[2]

This moderate view is resonating among the political players in interesting ways. During Blair's visit to Gaza, he was handed a document authored by Hamas’s leadership entitled “The Current Crisis and Hamas's Vision.” The document is part of a continuing, largely indirect, dialogue between Hamas and the members of the Quartet, who are preoccupied with the pan-Islamic power of the Islamic State and are concerned about Egypt's battle with insurgents in Sinai and increasingly in Egypt proper.

The Hamas paper notes that: 1) Hamas is a national liberation movement that conducts its activities within Palestine's borders; 2) Having an Islamic background and moderate ideology, Hamas believes in positive dialogue between different civilizations with no recourse to violence or oppression; 3) Hamas has nothing to do with any sectarian, ethnic, or political conflict in the region.

In the document, Hamas also offers its vision to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes these terms: 1) Hamas will not oppose a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital and with the right of return for Palestinians; 2) Hamas demands an immediate end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip; 3) Hamas demands the opening of all Gaza crossings and the expedition of reconstruction and development; 4) Hamas is eager to address remaining issues, including the construction of an airport and seaport, through indirect negotiations; and 5) Hamas is eager to form good relations with the international community, as it is ready to talk with international players about issues that may foster international stability and peace.[3]   

It is in this context of assuaging fears about Hamas's agenda that the beginning of a solution to Gaza's—and thus Palestine’s—woes is percolating in diplomatic circles throughout the region and beyond.

The grand bargain includes a tahdiya, or ceasefire, of between three and 15 years in return for the resumption of Gaza’s normal trade relations with Israel, the West Bank, and international markets. The normal operation of Israel's border crossings with Gaza would be resumed, but there would also be an entirely new and welcome dimension to Gaza's trade arsenal: a seaport.

Marzuk recounted a meeting between Israeli officials and Gaza merchants in which they discussed creating man-made islands along the Mediterranean coast just offshore of Gaza. An offshore seaport for imports and exports, under Israel's watchful eye, would be built on the Dutch landfill model. Similar concepts, including floating docks moored offshore, have been considered by international organizations and raised in parts of Israel's trade and security bureaucracies.

However, Israel's politicians, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have not yet been participants in these discussions. When a new Israeli government led once again by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets back to business after the elections, the problems of Gaza's long-suffering population, and the need for new ideas to address them, will with any luck appear on the diplomatic agenda.




[2] Conversation with the author, Cairo, February 2015.

[3] Avi Isaacharoff, “Hamas Offers Long-Term Calm in Exchange for End of Blockade,” The Times of Israel, March 9, 2015, http://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-offers-long-term-ceasefire-in-exchange-for-end-of-blockade/