The people of Gaza: everyone’s hostage

Jeremy Walker

Rarely has the pity of war been so abjectly manifested on a civilian population. Will Barack Obama manage to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians and give them their statehood while also bringing security to Israel?

On November 4, the day America elected a new President and the world celebrated the prospect of peaceful change, a small team of Israeli Defence Force commandos carried out an incursion into the Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Strip is a thin stretch of land along the Mediterranean coast bordering Egypt to the south and Israel to the north and east. Its 360 sq km — one-tenth the size of Goa — provide a tenuous home for 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs. Their per capita income gives them the 167th rank in the world, behind most countries of Africa and South Asia.

Gaza sits on land occupied by Israel during the Suez crisis and the 1967 Six-Day War. It currently languishes on the international stage along with the Palestinian West Bank. Neither has international recognition.

Only in 1994 did the Oslo Peace Accords give some semblance of authority to the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat. Arafat’s death in 2004 and an Israeli withdrawal from the territory in 2005 were followed by a bitterly fought Palestinian election the following year. The consequence was a bloody civil war between Arafat’s formerly ruling secular Fatah Party and the newly elected Islamist Hamas movement. Administrative division followed with Fatah securing the larger West Bank territory and Hamas seizing control of the Gaza Strip. This left two different Palestinian political entities in conflict with each other but sharing a common enemy in Israel.

Since its inception, Hamas has stood for the destruction of Israel and the liberation of the Palestinian people. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas guerillas have pursued a low-level but extremely damaging conflict. In this, Hamas have employed terrorist tactics and the Israelis have used overwhelming force and severely restricted all Palestinian movement in the country. There have been atrocities on both sides.

Since Hamas took control of Gaza, Israel has strengthened the cordon around the Palestinian enclave, thus strangling the cross-border flow of people and goods. Import and export controls have destroyed the viability of businesses and made those within the Strip further reliant on food aid for survival. At times the IDF has sealed the border completely, preventing food, medical equipment and energy supplies from reaching the population.

This happened again on November 4. Israel sealed the border after Hamas fired rockets into Israel in response to Israel’s ground incursion. Since that time no aid trucks have entered the area. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has run out of crucial food supplies.

And so it begins again. Hamas retaliates by firing rockets into the Israeli Negev and Israel responds by launching helicopter raids against the militants. All the time the situation escalates and the Gazan people become more desperate, alienated and angry. Rarely has the pity of war been so abjectly manifested on a civilian population.

Gaza has only one (European Commission-administered) power station. It requires energy supplies of oil, diesel and cooking gas to be trucked in through the northern border-crossing of Erez. Red Cross supplies are being turned back at the border along with U.N. food and diesel trucks. Hospitals have had to drop surgical operations by 40 per cent. Children suffering from cystic fibrosis and other serious conditions and illnesses cannot access the medicines they require daily to survive. Medical supplies were bought in last by a group of European parliamentarians who had to sail past the military blockade from Cyprus a week ago.

Journalists and diplomats seeking to monitor the situation are also being prevented from crossing the border.

It is not a new tactic — besieging populations has a history as long as warfare. Israel itself has practised it before. But its use is more potent now because Israel has prevented the aid agencies from stockpiling fuel and food during the period of ceasefire.

Two thirds of Gaza’s population is under 18 years of age. Most families rely on food aid to survive. “They get hungry, they get angry and they get radicalised. That doesn’t help anyone.” Chris Guinness, the UNRWA’s official spokesman, told The Hindu.

The logic behind the blockade is clear. It provides the means for Israel to retaliate and influence the militants’ actions. Israel can tighten the noose on the population’s life line, thereby forcing the Hamas authority to play ball. It is, however, of questionable effectiveness.

The resurgence in violence and the resumption of the blockade have done little to change the strategic situation. It has instead imperilled the prospect of an extension to the current truce which officially runs out next month and resulted in a further deterioration of conditions for civilians in Gaza.

The Israeli government blames Hamas and claims that the Islamist movement is “holding the people of Gaza hostage.” Hamas points out that it was an Israeli act of aggression which began the current phase of violence. Both sides know that the other will respond ruthlessly to any aggression or breach of the ceasefire in order to retain their political position.

Both Israel and Palestine hold elections next year and their domestic security and stances on the viability or desirability of peace will have major ramifications at the ballot box.

In spite of Israel’s claim that it is Hamas which holds the keys of change, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and U.N. humanitarian aid chiefs Louise Arbour and Sir John Holmes, have all condemned this tactic as “collective punishment.”

All this takes place against a changing international background. There is great expectation that Barack Obama will give priority to the Middle East when he assumes office in January. Progress on the Israel-Palestine conflict at the beginning of his presidency would give Mr. Obama the global political capital he needs to follow through on his other policies.

This is one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Few have ever been able to find the common ground necessary to move past the grievous injustices perpetrated against all sides involved. Mediators have tried and failed, often on too short a time-frame to have great hopes of success.

It is conceivable that Mr. Obama will alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians and give them their statehood whilst also bringing security to Israel. In the meantime, however, Israel should end the blockade. It punishes the many for the crimes of the few. This is against international law and it may ultimately prove to be against the interests of the state of Israel.

Hamas would not be the first nationalist movement to recognise that hunger and suffering are the most effective of recruiting agents.

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