September 10, 2006
By Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
The Israeli military and economic siege of Gaza has led to a collapse in Palestinian living conditions and many people only survive by looking for scraps of food in rubbish dumps, say international aid agencies.
“The pressure and tactics have not resulted in a desire for compromise,” Karen Abuzayd, the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency is said to have warned. “But rather they have created mass despair, anger and a sense of hopelessness and abandonment.”
Israel closed the entry and exit points into the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, on 25 June and has conducted frequent raids and bombings that have killed 262 people and wounded 1,200. The crisis in Gaza has been largely ignored by the rest of the world, which has been absorbed by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
“Women in Gaza tell me they are eating only one meal a day, bread with tomatoes or cheap vegetables,” said Kirstie Campbell of the UN’s World Food Programme, which is feeding 235,000 people. She added that in June, since when the crisis has worsened, some 70 per cent of people in Gaza could not meet their family’s food needs. “People are raiding garbage dumps,” she said.
Not only do Palestinians in Gaza get little to eat but what food they have is eaten cold because of the lack of electricity and money to pay for fuel. The Gaza power plant was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in June. In one month alone 4 per cent of Gaza’s agricultural land was destroyed by Israeli bulldozers.
The total closure imposed by Israel, supplemented by deadly raids, has led to the collapse of the Gazan economy. The 35,000 fishermen cannot fish because Israeli gunboats will fire on them if they go more than a few hundred yards from the shore. At the same time the international boycott of the Hamas government means that there is no foreign aid to pay Palestinian government employees. The government used to have a monthly budget of $180-200m, half of which went to pay 165,000 public sector workers. But it now has only $25m a month.
Aid agencies are frustrated by their inability to persuade the world that the humanitarian crisis is far worse in Gaza than it is in Lebanon. The WFP says: “In contrast to Lebanon, where humanitarian food aid needs have been essentially met, the growing number of poor in Gaza are living on the bare minimum.”
It is possible for foreign journalists to visit Gaza but it is a laborious process passing through the main Israeli checkpoint at Erez and then walking down a long concrete tunnel. The kidnapping of two Fox television employees by criminals – though they were later released – has also dissuaded several TV companies from covering the crisis.
The total closure imposed by Israel dates from the seizure of Cpl Gilad Shalit by Palestinian militants on 25 June. Between then and the end of August, Israeli security forces killed 226 Palestinians, 54 of them minors, in the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. Of these it says that 114 were taking no part in any hostilities.
The quickest way to alleviate the crisis would be for Israel to allow the Rafah crossing into Egypt to reopen, according to the mayor of Gaza City. But any restoration of the economy would require the reopening of the other crossing points at Erez and Karni.
* Israel lifted its sea blockade of Lebanon yesterday after an interim maritime task force led by an Italian admiral deployed off the Lebanese coast, the commander of UN peacekeepers said.