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ISR Issue 58, March–April 2008


The siege of Gaza


IN WHAT’S been described as the world’s largest prison break, a series of explosions on January 23 broke through the border wall separating Gaza from Egypt. Palestinians poured across the border rushing to buy supplies, visit with friends and relatives separated since the border closed in June 2007, or simply to get a breath of fresh air, away from the stultifying reality of life under siege. “I drank a whole bottle of Coca-Cola alone, and I ate Egyptian fish,” a youth quoted on Rafah-based journalist Mohammed Omer’s blog said. “No shooting, no Israeli attacks. I saw people sitting on the beach peacefully.”

Within two weeks, Egypt had regained control of the border and began rounding up any Palestinians on the Egyptian side of the border to forcibly return them to Gaza. The breach was a welcome, though temporary, reprieve from the suffocating pressure inflicted on the people of Gaza, and for a moment even the mainstream media was forced to show the reality of Israel’s debilitating occupation and blockade.

The blockade has wreaked havoc on an already suffering economy and infrastructure, causing electricity shortages that led to at least 40 percent of Gazans being denied access to running water and causing a breakdown in the sewage system. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA-oPt), at its worst moments, raw sewage was being released into the sea at a rate of 40 million liters per day, an environmental crisis of no small consequence. Hospitals were forced to rely on emergency generators and reduce their services and less than a third of basic food needs reached Gaza’s population.

As Mohammed Omer reports,

A stream of dark and putrid sludge snakes through Gaza’s streets. It is a noxious mix of human and animal waste. The stench is overwhelming. The occasional passerby vomits. Over recent days this has been a more common sight than the sale of food on the streets of Gaza, choked by a relentless Israeli siege. Doctors have warned that a medical catastrophe could follow by way of spread of cholera and other diseases… .“We have to choose between cutting the electricity on babies in the maternity ward, cutting it to heart patients, or shutting down our operating rooms,” says Dr. Mawia Hasaneen, director of emergency at al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza. The World Health Organisation released a statement Jan. 22 warning of serious health difficulties arising in Gaza Strip, isolated by the Israeli siege, the Egyptian border and the Mediterranean Sea.

While negotiations are under way between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, to determine vaguely defined “basic principles,” Israel has moved to crush Hamas’s rival control of Gaza.
Hamas had won power in fair and democratic parliamentary elections held throughout the Palestinian Occupied Territories at the beginning of 2006, raising the ire of the Israeli establishment. By midyear, Hamas entered into a unity government with Fatah, in the hopes of alleviating the growing pressures of Israeli sanctions as well as financial and military support to Fatah. But within a year, Abbas had dissolved the democratically elected Hamas-led government, and Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007.

Declaring Gaza an “enemy entity,” Israel began restricting fuel supplies in October 2007. As it was, since Hamas’s election victory of 2005, only twenty commodities were permitted to enter Gaza out of the nine thousand that were permitted before. Gaza’s only power plant, already running on partial capacity since it was bombed by Israel in June 2006, had fuel reserves that could only make up for the shortfall in supplies until early January of this year. By January 5, fuel reserves emptied, and the power plant began reducing supply by more than a third to Gaza’s electricity grid.

This was the hobbled state of Gaza’s fuel and electricity when Israel stopped all food, medicine, and fuel from entering the territory on January 18. Plunged into darkness, with no fuel for heat or cooking, and with frayed hospital equipment running generators, an already dire situation became a humanitarian disaster.

By the end of the month, though minimal fuel supplies have returned, ongoing raids and incursions into Gaza have persisted alongside increasingly bold threats to launch a full-scale assault. Indeed, on February 17 Olmert announced: “We have completely a free hand to respond, to reach out and to attack everyone [who has] any kind of responsibility on behalf of Hamas,” Olmert told Jewish-American leaders in Jerusalem. “That applies to everyone, first and foremost Hamas.”

The siege in Gaza, we’re to believe, is in response to the regular barrage of largely ineffective homemade Qassam rockets by Palestinian activists into Israel. The media is flooded with stories of scared residents of the Israeli border town of Sderot. But rarely reported in the news is the fact that Hamas has repeatedly offered to negotiate a cease-fire. Even less noted is the fact that Qassam rockets have killed twelve people in the past six years. Yet in less than one week in Gaza this January, forty Palestinians were killed, prompting UN monitor John Dugard to proclaim: “The killing of some 40 Palestinians in Gaza in the past week, the targeting of a government office near a wedding party venue with what must have been foreseen loss of life and injury to many civilians, and the closure of all crossings into Gaza raise very serious questions about Israel’s respect for international law and its commitment to the peace process.”

When Osher Twito, an eight-year-old Israeli boy, lost his leg in Sderot in early February, his story blanketed every major news outlet. “He loves playing soccer, but he will never play again. How can he play now with no leg?” cried his mother. Yet virtually no mainstream media source even mentioned the death of five-year-old Ayoub al-Fayed, killed by an F-16 missile strike a week later in the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, or Tamer Abu Shaar who was killed by the IDF in Deir al-Balah the week after that.

Osher’s injury quickly became the cause célèbre of the Israeli politicians clamoring for a full military assault into Gaza, as did the death of a twenty-year-old woman who was killed in a suicide attack in Dimona. But what made the death in Dimona and the injury in Sderot so remarkable was precisely how unusual they were. The last time an Israeli was killed outside of the Occupied Territories was in May of last year. According to UN statistics, in that same period of time (from May to January), in Gaza alone, 364 Palestinians were killed.

Nevertheless, Meir Sheetrit, a minister from the governing Kadima Party, proclaimed on Israel Radio that the army should “make an example, to take a neighborhood in Gaza and erase it.”

The groundwork for the suffering in Gaza has been long in the making. After the 1948 war in which Jewish forces drove half a million Palestinians from their land, Gaza became essentially a giant cramped refugee camp. After the 1967 war, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, chiseling away pieces of land for settler annexation. Palestinians in Gaza became completely economically dependent on Israel for jobs and goods. Through the first and second Intifada and the various “peace plans,” Israel has used its economic and military control of Gaza to enforce collective punishment on the Palestinians of Gaza whenever it suited them.

“The closure policy,” as Sara Roy, a Harvard-based Middle Eastern Studies scholar and economist has written, “proved so destructive only because the 30-year process of integrating Gaza’s economy into Israel’s had made the local economy deeply dependent. As a result, when the border was closed in 1993, self-sustainment was no longer possible—the means were simply not there. Decades of expropriation and deinstitutionalization had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development, ensuring that no viable economic (and hence political) structure could emerge.”

Israel’s May 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza, rather than the self-sacrificing pullout it was hailed to be, was merely the nail in the coffin of this debilitating closure policy. Israel pulled troops from the territory, while maintaining control of the borders, sea, and air in and around Gaza, along with the right to “pre-emptive and reactive steps to use force against threats posed from within the Gaza Strip.” This winter’s simultaneous blockade and raids is the culmination of “disengagement.” As Lance Selfa argued in Socialist Worker at the time of the pullout, “Israel’s policies of military strikes and assassinations of Palestinian leaders will continue after the settlers leave. In other words, the occupation of Gaza won’t end. It has simply been redesigned.”

Indeed, since May 2005, Israeli forces have killed 948 Palestinians in Gaza alone (186 children), injured 2,466 (808 children). This compares to twenty-seven Israelis killed and 363 injured (eight of of which were children) during the same time period.

These policies have also succeeded in creating astronomical levels of poverty. According to Sara Roy and Eyad al-Sarraj: “In 2007, 87 percent of Gazans lived below the poverty line, more than a tripling of the percentage in 2000. In a November 2007 report, the Red Cross stated about the food allowed into Gaza that people are getting ‘enough to survive, not enough to live.’”

Israel’s siege of Gaza advances their continuing aim to make completely untenable a Palestinian economic, political, or physical infrastructure that could lead the way to a viable state, while strangling the Palestinian will to resist. Most importantly, for the moment, Israel seeks to take advantage of divisions between Hamas and Fatah, negotiating with one, crushing the other. Negotiations with Fatah allow Israel to act the part of responsible peace partner, as it buys time to build a thousand new illegal Jewish housing units in Jerusalem. At the same time, as Khaled Amayreh wrote in Al-Ahram, “the real reason [for the siege on Gaza] is to destroy the Hamas government in order to lower the ceiling of Palestinian national expectations.”

Yet the image of Palestinians streaming across the toppled border of Rafah last month gave the world a glimpse of the determination of the Palestinian people to fight back.

Hadas Thier is a regular contributor to the ISR on the Middle East.
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