Grim anniversary

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST

in Cairo

A YEAR has lapsed since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its military offensive against Gaza. The operations started on December 28, 2009, and led to the death of more than 1,400 Gazans. Most of those killed were unarmed civilians. More than 400 children lost their lives in the savage attack.

The Richard Goldstone report commissioned by the U.N., officially called Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, describes the Israeli atrocities in graphic detail, but so far not a single Israeli politician or military official responsible for the carnage has been brought to justice. It describes the military campaign as a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorise a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.

Israel, far from being apologetic, has further tightened the blockade. The international community is passively standing by as Israel seeks to starve into submission one and a half million people who are already mired in poverty. At an international donors conference held in Cairo in March last year, billions of dollars were promised for the reconstruction of Gaza. The promises remain unfulfilled while the blockade, by the United States, the European Union and most of the Arab states, continues.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on an official visit to Cairo when Palestinians were commemorating the first anniversary of the attack on Gaza. The Egyptian government was very appreciative of the Israeli Prime Ministers contribution to peace in the region. The warm relations between the two countries were exemplified by the fact that Netanyahu was invited to Cairo, not to Sharm el-Sheikh where Israeli leaders are usually received. Sharm el-Sheikh is far away from the thickly populated cities.

As Palestinians were preparing to observe the anniversary of the Gaza war, the Israeli military once again started targeting Palestinian activists in Gaza and the West Bank for assassination. Israeli politicians started talking about another military offensive to root out the democratically elected Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. In an insensitive and ill-timed move, the Egyptian government announced in mid-December that it was constructing a wall of its own along its 14-kilometre border with Gaza. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that the controversial wall was being built to safeguard Egypts security. According to the Israeli commentator Uri Avnery, the Egyptian government has no choice but to follow the dictates of the U.S. which are, in fact, Israeli dictates. Egypt has been getting an annual subsidy of $2 billion from the U.S. since the signing of the Camp David accord.

It is well known that the impoverished population in Gaza is totally dependent on food and other essential commodities smuggled from Egypt. The barrier being built by Egypt with help from Western governments consists of a series of steel tubes and pipes that will be buried deep in the soil to prevent the construction of smuggling tunnels. The Egyptian government alleges, without providing any substantial evidence, that the Hamas government is being supplied with arms by Hizbollah and Iran.

In the last couple of months, using detection equipment provided by the U.S., the Egyptian army has found a large number of tunnels, and destroyed them. A Hamas spokesman said that the building of the wall would be a real disaster for the besieged people of Gaza. We are not talking about borders between Israel and Egypt; we are talking about steel borders between two peoples and one of these two peoples is under siege, he said.

Since the end of the Israeli offensive in January last year, Israel and Egypt have been allowing only vital humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. Thousands of homes, schools and clinics were flattened by Israeli air and ground attacks. Out of Gazas 640 schools, 18 were completely destroyed and 280 damaged. The World Health Organisation has estimated that 48 per cent of the 122 health facilities in Gaza were either destroyed or damaged.

Only 41 truckloads of construction materials have been allowed into Gaza since the end of the war. Thousands more such deliveries are needed to repair the damage caused to the civilian infrastructure.

The population lives under the constant threat of a collapse of water, sanitation and electricity services, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a recent statement. Ninety per cent of households in Gaza experience large-scale power cuts as a result of the Israeli attack and the lack of spare parts.

In a separate statement, 16 civil rights groups, including Oxfam and Amnesty International, said that the international community has betrayed the people of Gaza by failing to back their words with effective action to secure the ending of the Israeli blockade which is preventing reconstruction and recovery. The statement said that little of the extensive damage caused by the Israeli offensive to homes, civilian infrastructure, public services, farms and businesses had been repaired because of the acute shortages.

Forty-six per cent of Gazas once productive agricultural lands remain uncultivated because of damage caused during the Israeli offensive and also because Tel Aviv has designated many farms as free fire zones. The statement by the international agencies said that the fact that much of Gaza still lay in ruins is not an accident: it is a matter of policy. According to the latest U.N. report, the military assault and the ongoing Israeli blockade have triggered a protracted human dignity crisis in Gaza.

In the last week of December, around 1,400 activists, intellectuals and mediapersons from all over the world gathered in Cairo to participate in a mass march planned to be held in Gaza on December 31. It was intended to send a message to Washington and other Western capitals that the situation in Gaza violated international law and fundamental human rights. The proposed three-mile march was to head from Gaza to the Erez crossing on the border with Israel to link up with Israeli peace marchers. The idea for the Gaza Freedom March originally came from CODEPINK, a womens peace group that focusses on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the West Bank. Fifty thousand Palestinians were waiting for the 1,400 people to join them for the march.

The Irish Nobel laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the noted American writer Alice Walker, and 85-year-old holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein were among those who came to Egypt to participate in the march. Ann Wright a retired U.S. Army colonel, a former diplomat and now a peace activist said that another goal of the march was to focus attention on the active help many governments provided Israel. We will not be silent about the unlawful actions of our governments in the siege of Gaza, she said. The U.S. provides $3 billion as military aid to Israel annually. India is among the top purchasers of Israeli weaponry, thus indirectly subsidising the brutal occupation.

The Egyptian authorities at the 11th hour cited security concerns and denied the marchers permission to use the Rafah crossing to go into Gaza. Medea Benjamin, a spokesperson for CODEPINK, told the Egyptian authorities that the Gaza Freedom March was inspired by Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. But the authorities were unmoved.

They also refused to give permission for an aid convoy Viva Palestina organised by the British MP George Galloway and funded by European, Arab and Turkish organisations to directly enter Gaza through Egyptian territory. The convoy, which included 210 trucks carrying much-needed food and medicines, was finally allowed in on January 5 under controversial circumstances. The Egyptian authorities insisted that part of the relief supplies enter Gaza through the Israeli side. The buses ferrying the international group heading for El-Arish, a port city adjacent to Gaza, were stopped outside Cairo. The few who managed to reach El-Arish were kept under virtual house arrest by the Egyptian authorities. Motley groups among the freedom marchers started demonstrating and staging sit-ins outside the French, American and Italian embassies in Cairo demanding the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

Alice Walker and other delegates had a meeting with Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak, and this resulted in the Egyptian government giving permission for 100 marchers to leave for Gaza. This decision was viewed as a symbolic victory by a section of the activists present in Cairo. But this view was ultimately not shared by the majority of the freedom marchers. The statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry that only the good elements among the freedom marchers were given permission to go to Gaza was particularly insensitive and obviously aimed at dividing the group.

The representative group of 100 marchers finally gave up its plan to enter Gaza when prominent Palestinian civil society leaders based there and in the West Bank made telephone calls requesting it not to proceed to Gaza as that would divide the movement.

Activists such as Walden Bello, who had come all the way from the Philippines, felt let down by the turn of events. Bello, a member of the Philippines House of Representatives, was among the 100 marchers all set to leave for Gaza. He said that the Gaza march had succeeded in catching the attention of the international media and shown that the rest of the world had not forgotten the plight of the people trapped in Gaza.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment