December 28, 2009
In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict
In a report [.pdf] published this week, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Christian Aid and other leading aid agencies decried Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza. The siege amounts, they concluded, to the illegal “collective punishment” of a civilian population, and its effect is to
“systematically … [destroy] the hopes of Gaza’s people for social and economic development and of its business sector for growth and trade; and with them … the key foundations for a just and sustainable peace”.
Next week will mark the one year anniversary of ‘Operation Cast Lead‘, the three week orgy of killing and destruction that left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, the vast majority of them civilians, including hundreds of children.
During the massacre Gaza’s civilian infrastructure was systematically targeted. Entire residential areas were “almost completely flattened”, dozens of hospitals and clinics were severely damaged, hundreds of schools were destroyed or damaged and 700 private businesses were either partially or totally destroyed. In total a full third of all public buildings [.pdf] and perhaps 14% of all buildings [.pdf] in Gaza were affected.
Today, nearly a year later, the situation in Gaza remains desperate. The total ban on exports and the 80% reduction in imports, which are now restricted to only the most basic humanitarian and medical supplies, has taken its toll on the civilian population:
The Red Cross (h/t lenin) reports that “[t]here has been scarcely any improvement in the situation since the end of the war in Gaza, mainly because of the tight closure, which is preventing reconstruction”. Israel has prevented the import of construction materials like concrete and glass to the Strip, making rebuilding on any significant scale impossible:
“since Operation Cast Lead, only 41 truckloads of construction materials for all purposes have been permitted into Gaza. Thousands of truckloads are required to rebuild all the houses destroyed. And this is to say nothing of all the remaining reconstruction desperately needed to put right damage to all the schools, hospitals, other buildings and water network because of previous military action or serious dilapidation caused by lack of repair materials due to the blockade.” [my emph.]
This amounts to “barely four trucks of construction material a month”, or 0.05% of pre-blockade monthly flows. As a result hospitals, schools, factories, farms, homes and other essential civilian infrastructure “remain in ruins”. 20,000 people are still displaced, some of them living in tents or relying on emergency mud brick huts built by the UN. It has been estimated that if the current pace of reconstruction continues, it will take 500 years to repair the damage from ‘Cast Lead’ alone. Then there’s the power network which, already “on the verge of collapse” due to the siege, suffered “extensive, long-term damage” during the massacre. “[U]rgent repairs” have “not been allowed to proceed”, and so the population of Gaza faces a difficult winter ahead with power cuts of four to eight hours per day and “frequent … gas and water shortages, seriously affecting daily life and public health”.
Gaza’s water and sanitation infrastructure is even worse shape. Decades of neglect, the siege and repeated Israeli attacks (during ‘Cast Lead’ wells and pumps were “bombed or bulldozed on a huge scale”) have meant that only 5-10% of Gaza’s water reserves meet international safety standards for drinkable water. Thousands of people are still without running water, and despite the “desperate need” for repair work Israel won’t even permit the entry of generators to power the wells. Earlier this year local authorities and UN agencies warned of a looming water crisis – already 12% of young deaths are caused by diarrhoea, an “easily preventable disease”.
That Israel is blocking reconstruction in Gaza should come as no surprise. ‘Operation Cast Lead’, erroneously portrayed by most Western commentators – even those sympathetic to Gaza’s plight – as a response to the Qassam rockets, was part of a broader policy of “protracted collective punishment” designed to isolate and paralyse the Hamas government, undermine the ‘moderates’ within Hamas, punish the population for its defiance and, crucially, prevent economic development and reduce Gaza to aid dependency.
The destruction meted out during ‘Cast Lead’ was thus anything but random. On the contrary: an EU study [.pdf] found that 84% of the structural damage was “inflicted on three key sectors: housing, agriculture and the private sector”. As the UN World Food Program reports, ”it was precisely the strategic economic areas that Gaza depends on to relieve its dependency on aid that were wiped out.” The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights similarly concluded that Israel’s systematic destruction of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure was designed “to make Gaza go decades back“.
The destruction of Gaza’s agricultural industry, which used to employ 13% of Gaza’s workforce, is a case in point. In the course of ‘Cast Lead’ crops, livestock and agricultural infrastructure were extensively targeted. Taking into account both the direct damage caused by Israeli tanks and missiles and Israel’s subsequent unilateral extension of the ‘buffer-zone’ along the border, which put between a third and a quarter of Gaza’s agricultural beyond the reach of Palestinian farmers, “an estimated 46% of agricultural land has been put out of production”. The UN inquiry [.pdf] into the massacre chaired by Prof. Richard Goldstone concluded that
“in the destruction by Israeli armed forces of private residential houses, water wells, water tanks, agricultural land and greenhouses there was a specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance to the population of the Gaza Strip.”
In short, the strategic objectives that led Israel to force the closure of 98% of industrial operations in Gaza before ‘Cast Lead’ were the same strategic objectives that led Israel to bomb hundreds of factories during the massacre. The objectives that led Israel to bomb Gaza’s only power station back in 2006 were the same objectives that led Israel to extensively target Gaza’s power infrastructure during ‘Cast Lead’ and prevent its reconstruction afterwards. The objectives that led Israel to destroy 20 of Gaza’s 29 ready mix concrete plans, including its only cement packaging and storage plant, during ‘Cast Lead’ are the same objectives motivating its refusal to permit concrete and other building materials to be imported into Gaza now. The siege and the periodic military assaults on Gaza are part of the same overarching, long-term policy to impoverish and isolate Gaza, undermine Hamas and permanently eliminate any potential for economic development – what Harvard specialist Sara Roy has termed “de-development” [.pdf]* or, as one Israeli officer described his mission, “no development, no prosperity, only humanitarian dependency” [.pdf].
The aid agencies’ report accuses world powers of having “betrayed” the population of Gaza by failing to genuinely challenge Israel’s siege:
“They have wrung hands and issued statements, but have taken little meaningful action to attempt to change the damaging policy that prevents reconstruction, personal recovery and economic recuperation.”
Despite its “continuing and devastating” humanitarian impact – which, the report emphasises, is no accident but “a matter of policy” – the siege has effectively been “accepted” by the international community, which has failed to back up its words with meaningful action and has generally sought “little more than small concessions” from Israel.
The report focuses in particular on the EU, which as Israel’s largest export market could apply real pressure on Israel to end the closure (the US’s leverage over Israel is, of course, even greater). While the EU has taken some positive steps – notably the strong criticism levelled against both the occupation and the siege by new EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton – it has, as a result of pressure from some member states (Britain undoubtedly one of them), failed to brand the siege “collective punishment” or even a violation of international law. Despite the freeze on a formal upgrade of EU-Israel relations instituted consequent to the Gaza massacre, the EU “continues to extend new economic and trade privileges to Israel”, most recently in the form of a November agreement to liberalise agricultural trade. Indeed, as David Cronin reports, the much-hyped tension between the EU and Israel has been largely “superficial“:
“While there may have been the occasional angry word exchanged on the diplomatic front, the EU’s political and economic ties with Israel have been strengthened over the past few years to such an extent that Javier Solana, who stepped down as the Union’s foreign policy chief in late November, has remarked that Israel is an EU member state in all but name.
Israel’s effective integration into the EU has coincided with a marked reluctance on the part of the Union to denounce acts of aggression against the Palestinians. Although some individual EU representatives have described the blockade of Gaza as an act of “collective punishment” against 1.5 million civilians, no statement criticising the blockade as contrary to international humanitarian law has been issued by the 27-member bloc in its entirety.
Furthermore, all of the EU’s most populous countries – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland – either opposed the Goldstone report or abstained when it was considered by the UN’s General Assembly in November. (In that report, the retired South African judge Richard Goldstone and his fellow investigators found there was no justifiable military objective behind almost every attack on Gaza’s civilians undertaken by Israel in late 2008 and the beginning of this year).”
When challenged on what they’re doing to end the siege, government officials typically point to the large amount of aid (over $4bn in total) pledged to help reconstruct Gaza. In fact, as the aid agencies’ report notes, the aid has largely failed to materialise, far less made any substantive difference on the ground, because of the Israeli blockade. As the EU report linked above (sigh [.pdf]) notes, “access is a precondition for any recovery activity in the Gaza Strip”. The big danger of humanitarian reports like this is that they can inadvertantly encourage a focus on Gaza as a purely humanitarian problem, stripped of its fundamentally political causes. Indeed, as Prof. Avi Shlaim has observed, one of Israel’s aims in Gaza is precisely to “ensure that the Palestinians in Gaza are seen by the world simply as a humanitarian problem and thus to derail their struggle for independence and statehood”. The World Bank [.pdf] has been consistent in warning against this “illusion that economic prosperity can be de-coupled from a political horizon”, adding that
“real reconstruction of Gaza – one including some revival of the moribund private sector — entails not only the opening of the crossings for building materials and cash, but also enabling external trade so that the revitalized private sector can continue to mend and flourish”.
What we can do
In the face of this refusal by governments to adhere to and enforce international law, it falls to us as citizens of those governments to act. This means organising to pressure our representatives to end state support for Israeli crimes. More concretely, the Gaza Freedom March is planned for December 31 and it needs our support. Some 1,300 activists from around the world will converge on Gaza and then march alongside tens of thousands of Palestinians towards the Erez border crossing in an attempt to nonviolently break the siege. As I’ve previously written, if it is successful this effort has the potential to be a real game-changer, in terms of both ending the closure and establishing a powerful precedent for the successful use of mass nonviolent resistance to oppose Israel’s occupation.
Unfortunately the Egyptian government, which is itself heavily complicit in the siege, has declared that it will not allow the international activists to enter Gaza through Rafah. The march’s organisers are confident that if enough people send emails and make calls to their nearest Egyptian embassy demanding that Egypt let the marchers through then the demonstration will be permitted to proceed – so get on it.
More generally Israel is suffering badly from what Netanyahu calls the “Goldstone threat“, namely the PR catastrophe that resulted from the brutality of ‘Cast Lead’ and the Goldstone inquiry’s subsequent condemnation of Israel’s actions as ‘war crimes’. As an Israeli journalist known for his establishment connections recently wrote in Ma’ariv,
“Israel’s diplomatic status is undergoing a rapid collapse, whose like we have never known before. We did undergo crises during the first Lebanon War, the First Intifada and on other occasions – but never did we fall from a such great height to such a low depth, and the bottom is still far down.”
With the relentless colonisation of the West Bank continuing apace and nonviolent Palestinian activists facing an increasingly brutal campaign of repression by the Israeli military, now is no time to ease up the pressure.
* A UN report leaked in September described “a process of de-development in the Gaza Strip, which potentially could lead to the complete breakdown of public infrastructure and further deterioration in the economy.” As far back as 2007 the World Bank warned of potentially “irreversible” economic collapse in Gaza.