GAZA STRIP: STILL UNDER SIEGE
Israel and its Allies Instrument Social Disaster
by Jennifer Bing-Canar and Adam Horowitz, Peacework
2006 marked yet another difficult year for residents of the Gaza Strip. In the words of John Ging, the Gaza-based director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the Palestinians are "effectively living in one big prison." Despite hopes that the Israeli withdrawal of its settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005 might make life better for Gazans, 1.4 million Palestinians continue to live in devastated, poverty-stricken communities on a strip of land 25 by 6 miles long.
Palestinians in Gaza continue to be subjected to Israeli air assaults, military raids, arrests, and house demolitions. As of July 5, 2006, 840 homemade Palestinian rockets had been fired towards Israel from within Gaza that year. During the same period, the Israeli military fired 8,300 shells and rockets into Gaza, nearly ten times the number of Palestinian rockets. These attacks have resulted in eight Israeli and over four hundred Palestinian deaths. One Gaza journalist and father of two, Nidal al-Mughrabi, wrote in a personal account for Reuters this January, "It is not often safe to take your family out of the house. It's your fortress, and your prison, much like Gaza itself."
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is heightened due to the fact that Gaza is almost completely sealed off from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories and neighboring Egypt. Ironically, this process began in the heyday of the Oslo peace process when Israel began building a "security barrier" surrounding Gaza. Although different from the current Separation Wall in the West Bank in that it conformed to Gaza's internationally recognized border, this barrier served a similar role in extending strict Israeli control over Palestinian freedom of movement. The 30-mile-long barrier contains three crossing points for Palestinians to exit and enter Gaza: Erez Crossing (from northern Gaza to Israel), the Rafah Crossing (from southern Gaza to Egypt), and the Karni Crossing, which is used mainly for cargo. Control over these crossings gives Israel control over daily life in Gaza, including over Gaza's economy. Thus, Gaza remains under effective Israeli occupation nearly a year and a half after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza settlements.
Israeli control over these crossings has resulted in almost complete closure since the beginning of the Israeli military's "Summer Rain" offensive in Gaza in June 2006. During 2006 alone, unemployment in Gaza rose from 33.1% to 41.8% due to decreases in economic activity and humanitarian aid (this is compared to less than 12% in 1999). According to the Gisha Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement, an Israeli human rights group: "Imposing a strict curfew on the movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip and halting funding for public services have contributed to an economic and humanitarian crisis in the Strip of a severity unknown in the 38 [sic] years of occupation."
By the end of 2006, 89% of the population was living on less than $2 a day. Over 860,000 Gazans are living on food parcels distributed by the UN. The World Bank has characterized the situation facing Palestinians as the worst economic depression in modern history.
The people of Gaza have not only been physically sealed off from their surroundings—Gaza has also been diplomatically and politically isolated. The United States and the European Union have led a campaign of sanctions against the Palestinian people following the January 2006 Palestinian legislative council elections, which resulted in a Hamas party victory. The international community responded to the election by cutting off economic and humanitarian aid, and by supporting Israel as it refused to transfer tax revenue it had agreed to collect for the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo accords. As a result of these policies, over 100,000 Palestinian public employees have not received salaries in nearly a year. The economic embargo is interpreted by many as a form of collective punishment of a Palestinian populace for exercising its democratic rights.
In the United States this policy took the form of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. This draconian legislation labels the Palestinian Authority a "terrorist sanctuary" (which carries penalties for international private sector cooperation), effectively bans US aid to the West Bank and Gaza while Hamas holds the majority of the Palestinian legislative council, and encourages the US to use its influence to block international financial institutions from aiding the PA. Although there are some exemptions to the legislation, including assistance to meet human needs, democracy promotion, and "assistance in the national security interest of the United States," the legislation has been used thus far to complement the US strategy of regime change within the Palestinian Authority. Although poverty rates among Palestinians are jumping to alarming levels, the only US aid that has been proposed to this point is a promised $86.4 million to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' security services in anticipation of an armed confrontation with forces loyal to Hamas. The US government hopes that a policy of economic deprivation, combined with the power of a US-backed proxy military force, will lead to a regime change in the Palestinian government acceptable to the US and Israel.
Thus, Israeli closure policies, international sanctions, and US maneuvering to topple the democratically elected Hamas-led legislature have together led to a devastating situation for civilians. By April 2006 79% of households in Gaza were living under the poverty line (compared to less than 30% in 2000). This outcome appears consistent with the goals Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained soon after the Hamas election victory. He joked of the sanctions, "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."
One result of US policies forcibly promoting regime change is a marked increase in factional violence. In the first month of 2007, over two dozen Palestinians were killed in factional violence, adding to the 300 killed in internecine fighting in 2006. The escalation in fighting followed the failed efforts to form a unity government between Hamas and Fatah, and Mahmoud Abbas's call for new elections—although it is reported that even Pentagon officials have acknowledged that US policy has served as a catalyst for the violence.
Several voices, including some from within Israel, have warned of the consequences of an effort to topple Hamas' leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Senior Israeli intelligence officials have warned that Fatah is disintegrating and would not win even if new elections were held. Civil war would be a disaster for Palestinians, and would also clearly set back any opportunities to resume negotiations for peace with Israel. Henry Siegman and Robert Malley wrote at the end of 2006: "The most fundamental miscalculation of all is the notion that there can be a peace process with a Palestinian government that excludes Hamas. Hamas is not an ephemeral phenomenon that can be extinguished by force of arms. It is as permanent a feature of the Palestinian political landscape as Fatah, which means that no enduring change in relations between Israelis and Palestinians—and certainly no end to violence, or beginning of a political process, let alone meaningful Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank—can occur over its opposition."
Despite the growing hardship and desperation of life in Gaza, inspiring examples of nonviolent civil resistance continue. In addition to the daily steadfastness to survive under worsening conditions, there have also been several instances of unarmed Palestinian civilians offering protection for houses marked for demolition by the Israeli military. In one example, hundreds of residents of the Jabaliya refugee camp protected a house marked for demolition for several days until Israel called off the demolition order. The attack would have created widespread destruction in the incredibly densely populated camp. Women in Beit Lahiya also protested factional violence by taking to the streets chanting, "Spare the bullets, shame, shame" after a Hamas official was killed by Fatah gunners. Such actions have served as an example which many in Gaza are calling for people to emulate in hopes that Palestinians can prevent Israeli military attacks and end the recent deadly internal strife, through nonviolent means.
It is essential that we in the US work to change our government's foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One important upcoming opportunity to stand for justice in Palestine and Israel will be June 10-11, 2007, when the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, United for Peace and Justice, and hundreds of other organizations will converge in Washington, DC to protest US support for 40 years of Israel's illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The weekend's events will include a rally, teach-in, and lobby day and will be part of a global week of action entitled "The World Says No to Israeli Occupation."
Jennifer Bing-Canar and Adam Horowitz work in the National Middle East Peacebuilding Unit of the American Friends Service Committee. For more information about their work visit www.afsc.org/faces-of-hope
This story originally appeared in the February issue of Peacework,
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Cambridge, MA
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