Geopolitics

Why Israel's Sanctions Threat Against Palestinians Is A Big Bluff

Reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has angered Israeli leaders. But Israel's own economy can't afford a strangling of the Gaza and West Bank economies.

A checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem
A checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem
Danny Rubinstein

TEL AVIV — When the Israeli government seeks to justify enforcing economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority because of the reconciliation agreement with Hamas, exactly two facts should be kept in mind.

First, the bond between the two Palestinian factions is not new. And second, even the Israeli government behaved no differently from the Palestinian Authority.

Despite harsh Israeli criticism of last week's reconciliation accord, in the seven years since Hamas took over Gaza, the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah has been de facto supporting its Gazan counterpart when it pays the salaries of most state employees in Gaza and funds governmental institutions.

The Hamas government indeed laid off many of the senior officials of the Ramallah government who were stationed in Gaza — chiefly security officials.

But Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority administration refused to recognize these layoffs. And over the years, the Ramallah government has repeatedly emphasised the burden of the Gaza expenses on the Palestinian budget.

In fact, they argued, close to $4 billion of the annual Palestinian budget is spent on salaries and services maintenance in Gaza, even though Gaza accounts for only one-third of the total Palestinian population. On top of this, a considerable share of the taxes in Gaza are collected by the local Hamas government, not the one in Ramallah.

Therefore, it appears that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has been supporting the Hamas regime in Gaza rather generously.

That second fact is that the Israeli government hasn’t acted very differently. It first imposed an economic siege. Later, the raid on the Turkish flotilla led to the blockade being partly lifted.

The Israeli government effectively controls the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza, and therefore at least ostensibly has the power to impose harsh economic sanctions.

Fruits and flowers

The Israeli control means that nearly all of the Palestinian external trade is indeed with Israel itself. Some 80% of the West Bank’s exports and imports are with Israel, including fuel, electricity and basic foodstuff. Export from the West Bank abroad is particularly small, and the only exports from Gaza are strawberries and flowers.

Approximately 150,000 Palestinians work for Israeli employers — including those working in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, those entering Israel with no documents, and those working in the West Bank for Israeli industries. And Israel can, of course, also block these workers from entering.

Israel’s problem, however, is that such sanctions have a clearly defined red line — and that is a collapse of the Palestinian Authority’s economy. If Israel imposes the threatened sanctions, significantly blocking the crossings, the Palestinian Authority would stop paying salaries and Palestinian production would slow down.

The Palestinians know that Israel cannot push the situation to that point, and they use this fact as leverage.

The Palestinians also know how to overcome, at least partially, Israeli restrictions. Gazans have resisted restrictions in the past with the help of tunnels dug beneath the border with Egypt. These tunnels allowed fuel that is subsidised in Egypt and therefore very cheap, as well as food and construction materials. Hamas regulated the entry of goods through the tunnels and charged customs fees.

Introducing serious economic sanctions on both Gaza and the West Bank Palestinian Authority is essentially impossible. It would be unthinkable to block the crossings between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinians have accumulated a large debt to the Israeli national electricity utility, and now Israel is seeking to offset it with tax money it collects from Palestinians. But this could only be a temporary measure and would not incur any significant damage to the Palestinian government that has already received Arab League guarantees for compensation. For the Israeli utility, by the way, the Palestinian debt is a drop in the debt bucket.

So as long as the Israeli government controls the Palestinian territories’ external borders, there is no other option but to define this as a state of occupation, in line with international law that imposes responsibility for what’s happening in these territories on the occupying force.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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