Freedom at Rafah

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

A Palestinian boy walks on a part of the breached border wall between Rafah and Egypt, on January 27.-LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

A Palestinian boy walks on a part of the breached border wall between Rafah and Egypt, on January 27.-LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

The Washington-Tel Aviv plan of starving Gaza is in tatters with the breach of the border with Egypt by the people of Gaza.

A Palestinian boy

IN an event reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the people of Gaza, which is described as the biggest open-air prison in the world, broke through the border wall with Egypt at Rafah on January 23, after enduring unimaginable suffering for long. Thousands of starving people rushed to the Egyptian side to buy food and essential supplies.

Israel had imposed a collective punishment on the citizens of Gaza ever since they voted Hamas to power two years ago. In the last couple of months, the Israeli government almost totally stopped the supply of food, medicines, water and power to the one and a half million residents of the Gaza Strip. Gaza has been virtually isolated from the rest of the world after Israel clamped tight sanctions following the start of the second intifada (uprising) seven years ago.

The reason advanced by the Israeli government for the complete cut-off of essential supplies in the beginning of the year was that rockets were being fired into Sderot and other Jewish settlements near the border from Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan whose country is a close ally of Israel noted recently that these crude rockets rarely killed anyone. The rocket fire was in retaliation to the killing of more than a hundred Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli forces in the last two months. Many of them were victims of targeted killings.

Ranged against the crude rockets and AK-47s used by the Palestinians is the might of the Israeli Army, the strongest and the best equipped in the region. It regularly uses attack helicopters, jets and unmanned drones to target the Resistance as well as ordinary civilians in Gaza. The tragedy was that the international community stood by and watched as Israel introduced the politics of famine in its bid to strangulate collectively the people of Gaza. Israel declared Gaza a hostile territory last September. The Interior Ministry as well as other government offices in Gaza were bombed by Israeli jets.

Hamas had offered a ceasefire deal to Israel last year and repeated the offer in January. Its leadership had stated that it would ensure that rockets and mortar shells would stop being fired if Israel stopped incursions into Gaza, ended targeted killings and called off the blockade. Israel has so far shown no inclination to talk to the Hamas leadership. Instead, it further tightened the blockade after the recent visit of United States President George W. Bush to Israel. This has led Palestinians to surmise that the White House had given the green signal to the Israeli government to make a last-ditch effort to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza.

Eighty per cent of Gazas population today lives beneath the poverty line. The international communitys silence on Gaza has been deafening. India only issued a statement criticising the Israeli blockade in the last week of January despite it being common knowledge that the Gaza Strip had become one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. Israel has gone to the extent of blocking shipments of food by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. In late January, because of the threat of a U.S. veto, the U.N. Security Council could not pass a resolution condemning Israel for the blockade.

Two-thirds of the residents of Gaza are dependent on international donors for their food. By the end of 2007, Gaza had virtually run out of basic medicines. Because of the blockade, most of Gazas hospitals had fallen into disrepair by late 2007. Those in need of urgent medical attention were not allowed to travel out of Gaza by the Israeli authorities.

Among the worst affected were children and the elderly. And when Israel cut off fuel supply to Gazas only functioning power station at the height of winter, the lights went out in most parts of the enclave. The Gaza Power Plant used to meet two-thirds of the citys requirement of electricity before an Israeli air attack in June 2006 destroyed all six of its transformers. After that, it was only able to meet one-third of Gazas needs.

An Israeli commentator, Giliad Sharon, close to the Israeli establishment, wrote recently that it should be conveyed to the Gaza residents that one way or another, quiet will prevail here. You can choose whether this will be done through sitting in the darkness or through turning your backyard into ruins.

The level of malnutrition in Gaza is now comparable to that in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Before the breaching of the Rafah wall, Gaza was on the verge of plunging from deep poverty into malnutrition.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a statement released on January 22, warned of serious health problems in Gaza resulting from the blockade. Because of the non-functional sewage plants, Gazas streets are clogged with human and animal waste. Owing to the acute shortage of electricity, incubators for premature babies and dialysis machines had to be switched off. Even bottled water and water filters are not allowed into Gaza.

John Dugard, the special rapporteur in the Occupied Territories of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that Israels actions raise very serious questions about its commitments to international law and the peace process. He stressed that Israeli actions violated the strict prohibition of collective punishment contained in the fourth Geneva Convention and the basic principles of humanitarian law.

Richard Falk of Princeton University described Israels siege of Gaza as a prelude to genocide. He made this observation before Israel stopped supplying fuel to the only functioning power station in Gaza.

Egyptian border guards

The decision by the Israeli government to cut off fuel and electricity supply to Gaza was seemingly the last straw for the beleaguered populace. The people of Gaza, with Hamas lending a helping hand, decided to take matters into their own hands. With the aid of bulldozers and dynamite, the 40-foot wall constructed by Israel to pen in the thickly populated Strip, was breached at 17 different locations.

The Egyptian authorities, despite pressure from the U.S. and Israel, did not resort to force against the thousands of Palestinians making day trips across the border to stock up on emergency supplies. Egyptian security forces had, on earlier occasions, shot at Palestinians trying to break out.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered his troops to allow the Palestinians to come in and buy food and return to Gaza as long as they were unarmed. The prison that was Gaza was closed by Israel on three sides. The fourth wall was guarded by Egypt, thus making it a party to the blockade of Gaza. Senior Israeli officials have been urging Cairo to fulfil their legal obligation and re-erect the walls. Israel has been threatening to use its considerable clout in Washington to punish Egypt if it does not fall in line. American aid is important to the Egyptian economy. The country, along with Israel, is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world.

Two-thirds of the border wall has been destroyed. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is also a senior Hamas leader, said that his grouping had no objections to the official border crossing to Egypt being reopened, provided it was jointly supervised by Egyptian and Palestinian officials.

He added that Gaza should forge stronger economic ties with Egypt so that the territory does not remain totally dependent on Israel. The Hamas leader also said that his grouping would accept the return of European Union observers at the Rafah crossing, but under no circumstances would allow the resealing of the border by constructing walls. On February 3, Egypt and Hamas announced that the border was being fenced with barbed wire and only those with legal documents would be allowed to cross it.

Both sides were keen to end the chaos of 11 days during which the people of Gaza were allowed unfettered freedom of movement for the first time in more than four decades. A leading Hamas official said that the Rafah breakout was a wake-up call to the international community. He issued a veiled warning that the next breakout of the people under blockade could be along the border with Israel.

The government in Ramallah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, is still refusing to talk to Hamas. Relations between the two groups deteriorated after the Fatah group lost control over Gaza. Abbas has been promised a peace deal before the end of 2008 by the Bush administration.

At a donors conference in Paris in December, the Palestinian Authority was promised over $7 billion in aid. Even before the Paris conference ended, Israel dramatically escalated its actions against Gaza, making a mockery of the peace process. Abbas met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert without any precondition, when the people of Gaza were experiencing their worst-ever siege. But Abbas refuses to talk to Haniyeh.

The Israeli journalist Amira Haas, writing about the Rafah breakout, said that the leadership and public of Gaza, as two elements of the occupied people, were partners in the courageous and necessary step of breaking the Israeli rules of the Game.

The prominent Israeli commentator and peace activist Uri Avnery, while describing the Gaza Strip as the biggest prison on earth, said that the breaking of the Rafah wall was an act of liberation. He wrote that the lesson of Gaza, January 2008, was that no power can stand up against a mass of people that has crossed the border of despair.

There is some speculation that Israel will use the recent development to hand over de facto responsibility of Gaza to Egypt. Before the 1967 war, Gaza was under the control of Egypt. The Israeli Army had taken over Gaza during the war. Hiving off Gaza from the West Bank will solve the demographic problem from the Israeli point of view. Besides, a truncated Palestinian state on the West Bank will be more manageable for Tel Aviv.

But neither the Palestinian people, or for that matter the Egyptian government, is going to acquiesce to a scenario dreamt up in Washington and Tel Aviv. Both Hamas and the Fatah are united in their demand for a just solution of the Palestinian issue, which includes the withdrawal of Israel from all the territories it occupied after 1967 and the right of return for refugees.

What is clear is that the Washington-Tel Aviv plan of starving Gaza and isolating Hamas is now in tatters. Leading Israeli politicians are now calling for the opening up of a dialogue with Hamas.

They include the likes of Giora Eiland, the former security adviser of Ariel Sharon; Efraim Halevi, former head of Mossad; and Shaul Mofaz, a former Defence Minister.

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