No holiday in Gaza

Jewish Voice for Peace

No Holiday in Gaza

The news around Israel and Palestine has been relatively quiet of late. In the aftermath of Annapolis, little has changed, and, if one scans the mainstream media, one might think that little is really happening since the conference. But in the Gaza Strip, much has been changing as the suffering there is intensifying. Yet we hear very little about it.

While Israel has been openly speaking of and planning a large-scale invasion of Gaza for months now, the current thinking in the government and the military is leaning toward avoiding such a step. Unfortunately, this sounds a lot better than it is. Instead of invading Gaza, Israel is stepping up its military incursions and air strikes in the Strip. The reason given for this is the ongoing mortar and missile fire coming from Gaza at Israeli towns nearby. Indeed, the residents of Sderot, a working-class town near Gaza, have been witness to constant rocket fire. The obvious fact that Israeli incursions and attacks in Gaza have been going on all this time and the fire at Sderot continues would seem, however, to contradict the Israeli government’s statements that their attacks on Gaza are aimed at preventing the rocket and mortar fire across the border.

While Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, has discussed the possibility of a truce with Israel, the fighting is not only continuing but gradually growing in intensity. Though reports conflict over whether or not Hamas is really prepared to offer a truce, Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert has already ruled out any possibility of such an arrangement despite the fact that former Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and former head of Israeli intelligence Ami Ayalon have both said that Israel should consider the matter.

Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza goes from bad to worse. Health care services are scant due to lack of medical supplies coupled with food shortages and reduced fuel supplies from Israel on which Gaza depends. People talk about Gaza being on the “brink of economic collapse,” but one has to wonder at what point an economy is considered to have collapsed if not at the point where 80% of its population depends on international food aid, which itself has been sharply reduced. Indeed, it is probably time to stop worrying about when Gaza’s economy will collapse and acknowledge that it already has.

The shortage of medical supplies only increases the need for seriously ill or injured people to be able to leave Gaza in order to get treatment, whether in Israel, Egypt or the West Bank. But, as Physicians for Human Rights-Israel reports, new bureaucratic restrictions, which are layered on top of the already cumbersome and arbitrary system at crossing checkpoints out of Gaza, are making it extremely difficult even for patients in emergency need to get to the medical care they need. more reprehensibly, PHR accuses the Israeli intelligence service, SHABAK, of forcing some patients to inform on others in order to obtain passage.

The issue of medical care is only the tip of the iceberg. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) reports the following results of the siege Gaza has been under since Hamas’ takeover of the Strip in June:

* More Gazans than ever need food and direct assistance
* Fuel shortages have threatened essential services and water supply
* Life-saving treatments are not available in Gaza’s hospitals
* 17 per cent of patients with referrals were refused exit for treatment in Israel, East Jerusalem or overseas
* The on-going isolation of Gaza threatens the local economy
* Baby milk, medicines, and cooking oil are increasingly scarce
* Hundreds of businesses have gone bankrupt due to ban on imports/exports
* Thousands of labourers have lost their jobs due to the collapse of the building industry
* Building projects worth US$370 million are on hold indefinitely

Gaza at its best is not blessed with many resources and would have a hard time building a thriving economy even in favorable conditions. Under the current circumstances, there is absolutely nothing that can be done, by Hamas or by any other group in Gaza, to sustain its populace. Large-scale programs to generate revenue, such as an offshore natural gas project, are stymied by Israeli resistance. The UN-OCHA report shows that exports from Gaza have dropped to essentially zero since June.

Food shortages are epidemic. The World Food Program “…estimates that only approximately 41 per cent of humanitarian and commercial food import needs were met between 1 October and 4 November 2007. Basic items including wheat grain, vegetable oil, dairy products and baby milk are in extremely short supply.” 80% of Gazans now receive food aid, compared to 63% in 2006. Two-thirds of Gazans live in “deep poverty,” defined as living on $474 USD or less per month.

Water pumps that serve half the population lie in disrepair due to lack of parts. Of 3,900 industrial establishments in Gaza, 3,500 have shut down due to lack of raw materials, complicated now by lack of funds and reduced power supplies. Of 32,000 workers employed in this sector, only 3,000 (9%) remain employed. The construction and agricultural sectors have experienced similar devastation. The public sector, which employs some 40% of Gaza’s workers, is the only sector that is still functioning and, while some payment of salaries resumed with the freeing of some public funds, payments remain sporadic and those gathering salaries have greatly increased burdens due to the enormous unemployment affecting their families.

Imports which numbered some 12,000 truckloads per month in May, 2005, are now down under 2,000 per month, consisting mostly of aid supplies. Exports are virtually eliminated. Human traffic in and out of Gaza has been severely curtailed, cutting off more sources for work for Palestinians who had worked in the West Bank, Egypt and even in some cases, Israel. UN-OCHA describes it thus: “Severe restrictions on the movement of people into and out of the Gaza Strip have also been imposed. Palestinians have not been allowed to leave Gaza since mid-June 2007 except for traders, aid workers, a restricted number of pilgrims and a limited number of medical cases. On 2 December the GoI began to permit to some of the 6,000 Palestinians with the necessary foreign residency, or papers to study or work abroad to exit Gaza through Kerem Shalom – the first time that crossing has been used for the passage of people. As of 11 December, 920 persons have crossed through Kerem Shalom, out which 198 were refused entry to Egypt and were sent back to Gaza.”

This is a non-functional economy in any sense of the word. Mass starvation is only barely being staved off with the meager aid supplies being allowed in to Gaza. As the Red Cross, which usually does not make such statements, said, Gazans are being given “enough to survive, but not enough to live.” The World Food Program also said that “…62 percent of household spending went on food, putting Gaza’s non-refugee population on par with Somalia. That compares to 37 percent in a 2004 survey.”

Relief does not seem to be forthcoming, as Gaza’s 1.4 million residents are being held hostage to collective punishment in the political battles between Hamas and Fatah and between Hamas and Israel. That other countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also wish to see Hamas fall means that Gazans are left with little hope for support. The recent donor conference for the Palestinian Authority saw some $7.4 billion pledged to the PA, but Gaza is not likely to see much of that money because of the antipathy toward Hamas. Empty words from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are not going to help either.

Resolving the situation in Gaza is a complicated matter. Gazan society and internal politics, with their mix of clashing ideologies between Hamas, Fatah and other parties and the maneuverings between government, international and local NGOs and, perhaps most importantly, clan and family alliances (some of which have their own private militias and which form part of the backbone of Palestinian society) is not a simple arena. But what must be made clear is that the current situation is intolerable. Israel has legitimate security concerns, but such cannot justify collective punishment and the starving of nearly a million and a half people. That situation must be brought to an end immediately while other means must be found to reconcile the Palestinian factions and to find some at least temporary accommodation between Hamas and Israel.

Israel’s siege and attacks on Gaza are not providing security to Sderot and Ashkelon. Hamas’ attacks on Israeli towns only harm the Palestinian cause. Residents of Israeli towns near Gaza are frightened, and the people of Gaza are slowly starving to death. The current situation is the worst of all worlds. It only strengthens the resolve of the military leaders of both Israel and Hamas as it gives neither side a graceful option. International intervention, with the immediate goal of relieving the suffering in Gaza and rebuilding the Gazan economy must take immediate precedence, even above the other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Otherwise, this miserable Christmas in Gaza will only be followed by even more horrifying ones.

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