Killing siege

Published : Jan 16, 2009 00:00 IST

SULEIMAN SALIM PREPARES a fire for cooking outside his home in Gaza City. The Israeli blockade has led to frequent blackouts and resulted in shortages of food.-HATEM MOUSSA/AP

SULEIMAN SALIM PREPARES a fire for cooking outside his home in Gaza City. The Israeli blockade has led to frequent blackouts and resulted in shortages of food.-HATEM MOUSSA/AP

FROM all available indications, the international community seems to have forgotten about the existence of Gaza and the million and a half people who have been living there under siege for a year and a half. As the global economic crisis and the developments in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Asia held centre stage, the Israeli government moved to deprive the citizens of Gaza recourse to basic necessities such as food, medicines and drinking water. The United States and the European Union have stood aside and let the slow genocide go on.

Since early November, Israel has severely curtailed the flow of the United Nations essential humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip. Fifty-six per cent of Gazas population consists of children, who have nothing to do with the more than six-decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict. A recent study reported that 46 per cent of the children in Gaza suffer from acute anaemia and 18 per cent have stunted growth. The daily sonic booms created on purpose by Israeli air force jets to terrorise Gazans have caused widespread deafness, especially among children.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon had personally requested Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to allow U.N. supplies and aid workers back into Gaza. His request was rudely spurned by the Israeli government. Israel has not even allowed foreign journalists to enter Gaza. A spokesman for the Israeli Defence Ministry said that journalists would unnecessarily inflate the suffering of Gazans. In the second week of December, Israel expelled well-known American human rights activist and academic Richard Falk. He was on a U.N. assignment to look into the situation in the occupied territories, including Gaza. Falk, who is Jewish and until recently taught law at Princeton University, has compared Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories to those of the Nazis during the Second World War. Falk is also of the view that Palestinian rocket attacks, which he said constituted a breach of international law, do not legalise Israels imposition of collective punishment on the people of Gaza. Israels policies against the Palestinians, he has said, are tantamount to crimes against humanity. He said in a statement that it was mandatory for the U.N.s International Criminal Court to investigate Israels policies in regard to the Palestinians. The international community, he added, had a fundamental moral and legal duty to protect the Palestinian people.

The current President of the U.N. General Assembly, Miguel dEscoto, described the Israeli governments move to expel Falk as a dangerous decision to rebuff U.N. mandates and U.N.-appointed mandate holders. DEscoto, who is Nicaraguas ambassador to the U.N., said that Falk was due to investigate human rights violations that affected the protected civilian population of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most urgently, he intended to investigate the rising humanitarian crisis resulting from the siege of Gazas 1.5 million population imposed by the occupying power, he said.

He also compared Israels treatment of Palestinians to South Africas treatment of blacks under apartheid. We must not be afraid to call something what it is, he said in his speech on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with Palestinians on November 29. The date coincides with the U.N.s resolution in 1947, which led to the creation of the state of Israel and the takeover of Palestinian lands.

The Gaza Strip has been described as the biggest concentration camp in the world. Israel imposed a total blockade in the first week of November and Gaza is blockaded from land, sea and air. A five-month-old, Egyptian-brokered, truce seems to be spluttering towards a violent end. An Israeli army incursion into Gaza on November 4 led to a resumption of Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. Hamas had been diligently observing the truce despite the Jewish states refusal to relax the blockade. It was only after the Israeli army incursions and aerial attacks since early November, which have killed many Palestinians, including children, that the resistance fighters retaliated. So far no Israeli citizen has died in the rocket attacks. The Hamas spokesman has said that there will be no renewal of the ceasefire as long as there is no real Israeli commitment to its provisions.

U.N. agencies have said that the Israeli decision to stop food supplies from entering Gaza is leading to a human catastrophe. Karen Abu Zayed, Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said in late November that the human toll as a result of the Israeli blockade on Gaza was the gravest in eight years. The Gazans, she said, were not only under occupation but also under siege. Senior functionaries in the Israeli government are once again talking about a military solution for Gaza. Foreign Minister and leader of the ruling Kadima Party Tzipi Livni said that Israel should act militarily, economically and politically to weaken the Hamas, which has been in control of Gaza since June 2007. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that the military is waiting for the right moment to act against the Hamas in Gaza.

There are also allegations that the Fatah leadership in Ramallah is keener on ousting Hamas, which is in power in Gaza, than on helping the starving populace. According to Egypts Al-Ahram Weekly, Palestinian Authority (P.A.) president Mahmoud Abbas will interpret Arab support for Gaza as indirect support for Hamas. The Arab media have reported that Abbas was angry when the Arab League Secretary-General, Amre Moussa, met with the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Damascus.

Abbas has reportedly demanded that all assistance to the beleaguered people of Gaza be channelled through the P.A. Otherwise, the P.A. feels, Hamas would get all the credit. Abbas term in office officially ends on January 9, 2009. Hamas is opposed to Abbas continuing beyond that date. The efforts of Egypt to bring about a reconciliation between the warring Palestinian factions have floundered in recent months. A senior Hamas official told Al-Ahram that when the P.A. is encouraging the siege and coordinating with Israel it is hard to expect other Arab countries to worry much about the Palestinians.

Ismail Haniyeh, the de facto Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, has criticised the international community for idly watching the Israeli crimes against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. At a rally held in Gaza City to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the founding of Hamas on December 14, which was attended by an estimated 300,000 people, Haniyeh stressed that his party was in fact strengthened by the Israeli sanctions. It is a letter to [Barack] Obama, to the Zionists and those who stand in the same trenches as them: We say with confidence, you will not be victorious, he told the huge crowd of supporters.

An Israeli human rights organisation, Gisha, in a letter to the Israeli army, stated that the blockade was being enforced with the illegal intention of inflicting pressure on the civilian population in an attempt to affect the behaviour of militants and political elements. The letter emphasised that the closure of the border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip is in violation of the absolute prohibition in International Law against collective punishment.

The U.N. described the Israeli decision to blockade Gaza as an act of collective punishment. The U.N. Human Rights Council issued a statement on December 9 proposing 99 measures for Israel to improve its rights record, including the immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade. Eighty per cent of Gazans live on $2 a day and depend on international aid to survive.

Lack of fuel supplies has caused widespread blackouts lasting up to 16 hours every day. There is only one functioning power plant in the whole territory. The extremely erratic power supply is a virtual death sentence for those in need of emergency care in hospitals. As it is, the hospitals in Gaza have run out of essential spare parts that are routinely needed for operations. Incubators and dialysis machines do not work anymore. Palestinian Health Minister Bassem Nain has expressed the fear that there will be deaths on a large scale. The acute shortage of power has affected access to drinking water and the treatment of sewage. A former American ambassador to Jordan, Richard N. Veits, was quoted as saying that the Israeli manipulation of the population in this manner is comparable to some of the crimes that took place against civilian populations 60 years ago.

Mairead McGuire of Ireland, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, recently talked about the need to mobilise international opinion to demand that the U.N. revoke Israels membership over its war crimes. Israel has the dubious distinction of having ignored the largest number of U.N. resolutions.

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