In the world of principle and international law, the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza – which until now blocks Gazans from traveling to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and blocks Gazans from exporting, farming, fishing, and otherwise earning their living – is a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars the use of "collective punishment" against a civilian population living under occupation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross – a key guardian of the Fourth Geneva Convention – has stated this clearly. As Voice of America reported:
"The International Committee of the Red Cross says Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip breaks international law. The humanitarian agency said Monday that the blockade violates the Geneva Convention, which bans ‘collective punishment’ of a civilian population. "
Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 – on the Red Cross website – says: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited…Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited."
"Protected persons" are defined in Article 4: "Persons protected by the Convention are those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals."
But whether we like it or not, in the world of practical affairs, other things matter besides principle and law.
In practice, the issue of the Gaza blockade has been entangled with issue of the captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. As the Washington Post has noted, "The blockade was widely seen as a punitive measure driven in large part by the outrage that Shalit’s abduction in 2006 generated in Israel."
Hamas officials have said that Israel pledged to lift the Gaza blockade as part of the prisoner exchange that freed Shalit. Egyptian officials have also indicated that lifting the blockade was part of the deal. But Israeli officials have said that Israel did not agree to lift the blockade.
Whether lifting the blockade was part of the deal or not, Shalit’s release should cause the international community to urgently revisit the issue of the Gaza blockade.
First, there is never a bad time to revisit a serious violation of international humanitarian law, and the ongoing denial of the basic human rights of 1.6 million people.
Second, although the captivity of Shalit was not a legitimate justification for the blockade, it was a key justification nonetheless. That key justification has been removed.
Third, as press reports have indicated, in achieving the prisoner exchange deal that had long eluded them, both Israel and Hamas were responding to changed dynamics in the region as a result of the Arab Spring. Both Israel and Hamas compromised longstanding positions to achieve the deal; both Israel and Hamas responded to pressure from Egypt and others to compromise to achieve the deal.
This development naturally begs the question: given these changed dynamics, what else could be achieved as a result of new pressure on the parties to compromise? Could a lifting of the blockade be achieved? Is there any good reason why the international community should not try to achieve this?
Lynn Pascoe, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, has just made exactly this argument to the Security Council:
A senior United Nations official has called on the Israeli government to lift the siege that has been imposed on the Gaza Strip for five years. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe told a Security Council meeting on the Middle East and the Palestine Issue that the prisoner exchange agreement should lead to further steps towards ending the closure of Gaza, where a significant portion of the population are food insecure and dependent on humanitarian assistance.
"We reiterate our call on Israel for more far-reaching steps to ease its land closures and facilitate the entry of construction materials into Gaza, free movement of people in both directions and exports from Gaza, with due consideration for Israel’s legitimate security concerns," he said.
To his everlasting credit, when Gilad Shalit was released from captivity, he used his megaphone to press for the release of prisoners, peace and reconciliation. "I will be very happy if all these prisoners are freed so that they can go back to their families, loved ones, territories – it will give me great happiness if this happens," Shalit told Egyptian TV. "I hope this deal will help with the conclusion of a peace deal with the Israelis and Palestinians and I hope that cooperation links between the two sides will be consolidated."
The international community should follow Gilad Shalit’s noble lead. Lift the siege of Gaza now.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.