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Gaza: How far can it bend before it snaps? – A new article by Stephen McCloskey

The following article was written by Stephen McCloskey, a member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign who has written extensively on the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank by Israel.

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Gaza: How far can it bend before it snaps?

 

In December last Amnesty International warned that the Gaza Strip was ‘in the shadow of a public health catastrophe’ given the deteriorating living conditions for the region’s 1.7 million people, most of whom are refugees.  Subjected to an Israeli blockade since 2007 that has devastated its economy and created soaring unemployment, Gaza has been dealt a series of recent blows that have exacerbated the effects of the siege.

In July 2013, Egypt’s elected President, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown by a military coup in an increasingly fractured country attempting the transition to democracy after almost thirty years of oppressive government rule by military leader Hosni Mubarek.  The Hamas government in Gaza benefited from close links with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, particularly through the re-opening of the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza and revenues derived from a sharp increase in black market activity through border tunnels at Rafah on Gaza’s Southern border.  Since the coup, Egypt’s new military ruler, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has cooled relations with Hamas, restricted access through the crossing, and ordered the closure of the tunnels to prevent ‘dangerous elements’ from entering the Sinai region near Gaza.  Cairo has accused Hamas of not doing enough to secure the border between Gaza and Egypt which has been used by Islamic militants to launch attacks on Egyptian troops in Sinai.

Open air prison

The border crossing is open on average four hours a day and can be closed for days on end in the event of a security incident in Sinai.  These closures have worsened an already bleak existence for the vast majority of Gazans.  A recent United Nations’ report shows a 71 percent drop on the number of daily travellers through the Rafah crossing since July 2013 from nearly 1,400 to 398. Behind every commuter refused entry into Egypt is a narrative of frustration and sometimes tragedy for those trapped in what British Prime Minister David Cameron described as an ‘open air prison’.  Families can be separated, medical treatment denied, students prevented from pursuing academic pathways, and workers unable to make a living.  The Rafah crossing is in effect a ‘gateway to the outside world’ for Gazans living in the strangled social and economic conditions imposed by Israel’s blockade.

Women in Gaza displaced by the winter storm take refuge in a local school. Thousands of people had to abandon their homes after severe flooding. Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam

Women in Gaza displaced by the winter storm take refuge in a local school. Thousands of people had to abandon their homes after severe flooding. Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam

Gaza’s other main lifeline has been the smuggling tunnels with the ‘annual value of the goods smuggled from Egypt to Gaza estimated at $1 billion’.  The UN has reported that only 10 of the 300 tunnels remain partially open which has reduced to a trickle the amount of fuel and construction materials going into the stricken territory.  With only a fraction of Gaza’s fuel needs being imported through Israel’s ‘official crossings’, the territory had become heavily reliant on fuel smuggled through the tunnels to operate schools and hospitals, water and sanitation facilities, and the only power plant.

Power outages

The knock-on effects of the tunnel closures have included power outages of 12-16 hours a day with the UN reporting that the Gaza power plant ‘may shut down if adequate supplies are not urgently made available’.  Moreover, the construction sector which accounted for 80 percent of Gaza’s growth in the first quarter of 2013 has been decimated by the tunnel closures.  Nabil Abu Muaileq, the Chairman of the Palestinian Contractors’ Union, has said that ’60% of construction relies on the tunnels’ and 50% of projects had consequently ‘stalled’.

‘Gaza’, he said, ‘is on the verge of an economic and social crisis because the unemployment rate will increase as a result of the halt in the work of labourers, technicians, companies and factories’.  Since September 2013, Israel has admitted 50 truckloads of construction material a day through the Kerem Shalom Crossing in addition to an existing volume of 20 truckloads but this is woefully short of what is needed.  The Ministry of National Economy in Gaza estimates that Israel admits 20 tons of cement and 10 tons of steel bars each day when it needs 4,000 and 1,500 tons respectively.  The price paid for the dwindling supply of construction materials entering Gaza is a desperate shortage of schools, houses, health facilities and basic infrastructure needed to keep pace with the region’s population.

Floods

Where this not enough to contend with, Gaza was subjected to flooding after four days of torrential rain in December which left many homes accessible only by boat.  Some 5,000 people in Northern Gaza were displaced in what the UN called a ‘disaster area’.  Given the lack of fuel available to Gaza’s only power plant, the territory was left without sewerage and water treatment plants.  Children had to navigate lakes of raw sewage on their way to school exacerbating a sanitation crisis in Gaza caused by 90 percent of water from its underground aquifer being already unsafe to drink.  According to Amnesty International ‘Some 65 per cent of Gaza’s population only receive water once every three or four days given the increasing infiltration of sewage and sea water into the domestic supply’.  Amnesty describes this deteriorating humanitarian situation as ‘an assault on the dignity of Palestinians in Gaza’.

Gazafloods1

Schoolgirls in Gaza wade home through a flood of sewage. When Gaza’s sole power plant ran out of fuel, the sewage pumping system stopped working. This neighbourhood was flooded with raw sewage. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam

There is also a scarcity of food in Gaza caused by a flatlining economy, spikes in food prices and increasing unemployment.  According to the UN mission in Gaza, the number of food insecure households in the region has risen from 44 percent in 2011 to 57 percent in 2012 with 800,000 Gazans dependent on food aid.  In April 2013, the UN had to suspend operations at all of its food distribution outlets after one of them was stormed by protestors because of the suspension of cash payments to some of the poorest Palestinian refugees.  The suspension was caused by a $67million shortfall in the UN’s budget due to reduced contributions from donor states which reflect an international trend in declining aid spending following the 2008 financial crisis.  The UN annually launches an emergency appeal to meet the shortfall in income but this too is coming up short which raises the prospect of more unrest in Gaza should more core food, cash and jobs programmes become suspended.

In August 2012, the UN warned that by 2020 Gaza would be rendered uninhabitable due to the scarcity of water and food, and lack of housing, schools and hospitals.  Many firsthand observers of Gaza’s rapid social and economic deterioration argue that the territory is already without a safe and humane environment for its people, some of whom have been driven to the very edge of despair.  With its growing dependence on candlelight, transportation by horse and cart, and underground tunnels to sustain life, Gaza is retreating into a medieval society grinding slowly to a halt.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hazem Balousha, a citizen of Gaza said: ‘We wake up in the night worrying about small things: cooking gas, the next power cut, how to find fuel for the car. We no longer care about the big things, the important things, the future – we just try to get through each day’.  The Director of UN operations in Gaza, Robert Turner, asked of the current situation: ‘So much pressure has built up. How far can Gaza bend before it snaps?’  In a departing dispatch for the Guardian in January 2014, its outgoing Jerusalem correspondent, Harriet Sherwood, summed up the current situation in Gaza thus:

“Power cuts, fuel shortages, price rises, job losses, Israeli air strikes, untreated sewage in the streets and the sea, internal political repression, the near-impossibility of leaving, the lack of hope or horizon – these have chipped away at the resilience and fortitude of Gazans, crushing their spirit”.

Military Strikes

Israeli air strikes and extrajudicial killings add another layer of foreboding on the lives of Gaza’s citizens, particularly in the wake of Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009), which claimed 1,383 Palestinian lives (including 333 children) and Operation Pillar of Defence, (14 to 21 November 2012), which killed 167 people, including 32 children.  Both operations took the form of aerial bombardments by fighter aircraft, armed drones and helicopters and resulted in heavy civilian casualties, particularly among young people; the former also saw a ground invasion by Israeli troops and tanks.  The NGO Defence for Children International has monitored the number of children killed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 which totals 1,401.  73% of this total, or 1,033 children, have been killed in the Gaza Strip alone and none of these children were involved in hostilities when their lives were taken.

Sabah in her flooded house in Gaza City. Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam

Sabah in her flooded house in Gaza City. Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam

Unsurprisingly, many of Gaza’s young people suffer symptoms of conflict-related trauma that often manifest themselves through behavioural changes, difficulties with concentrating in school, bedwetting, loss of appetite, apathy and becoming withdrawn.  Moreover, the psychological problems related to life under constant threat of violence combined with the added strain of material deprivation can contribute to a difficult domestic life for everyone in Gaza.  However, an important distinction needs to be drawn between the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and emergency situations like the typhoon that caused such devastation in the Philippines last November.

Legal obligations

The food and water shortages, electricity cuts, lack of infrastructure, inadequate number of schools, houses and health clinics, child growth stunting, rampant rates of diarrhoea and typhoid fever, psychological problems and material deprivation all directly result from Israel’s blockade.  According to the Israeli human rights NGO B’tselem, The Hague Convention (1907) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) impose general responsibility on the occupying state ‘for the safety and welfare of civilians living in the occupied territory’.  Although Israel has withdrawn its settlements from Gaza and ‘does not have a fixed presence throughout the whole area’, it maintains ‘effective control’ of the territory.  Israel controls the air space over Gaza, the coastline and the border crossings (Rafah aside) and therefore assumes key powers normally reserved for a government.  The crisis in Gaza is not the result of a devastating act of nature: a drought, famine, flood or tsunami but a systematic choking off of Gaza’s economic potential and means for self-development and independence.   It is a cruel form of ‘collective punishment’ and Amnesty International along with a host of other development and human rights groups has urged the Israeli authorities to lift the blockade immediately.

The crisis in Egypt has fanned the effects of Israel’s blockade together with the recent floods.  As UN spokesman Chris Gunness suggests: ‘it is the most vulnerable, the women and children, the elderly who will pay the highest price of failure to end the blockade’.  The Israeli bombing campaigns aside, the international media largely ignores the slow silent catastrophe of the blockade’s effects on Gaza so the Palestinian people are dependent on civil society movements around the world to lead our governments toward action that will lift the blockade.   This means supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which is starting to really impact on Israel’s economy.  As the Guardian reported recently:

“The number of European corporations who have severed or reviewed links with Israeli companies which operate in settlements is accelerating; the European Union is taking an increasingly tougher line; and the boycott movement is gaining traction in the United States, where it has previously struggled to win support”.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz argues that BDS ‘constitutes a proactive method of nonviolent resistance that is essential to the Palestinian struggle for equality and freedom’.  Join the campaign and help lift the siege of Gaza.

References

Al Jazeera, ‘Thousands evacuated after Gaza floods’, 15 December 2014, available: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/thousands-evacuated-after-gaza-floods-2013121418338338458.html, accessed 3 February 2014.

Amnesty International, ‘Israel/OPT: Gaza power crisis has compounded blockade’s assault on human dignity’, 1 December 2013, available: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/israelopt-gaza-power-crisis-has-compounded-blockade-s-assault-human-dignity-2013-11-29, accessed 3 February 2014.

BBC, “David Cameron describes blockaded Gaza as a ‘prison’”, 27 July 2010, available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-10778110, accessed 3 February 2014.

B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, ‘The Gaza Strip – Israel’s obligations under international law’, available: http://www.btselem.org/gaza_strip/israels_obligations, accessed 10 February 2014.

Guardian, ‘Goodbye Gaza: our correspondent reflects on her time in the Middle East’, 25 January 2014, available: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/25/goodbye-gaza-harriet-sherwood-palestine-israel, accessed 31 January 2014.

Guardian, ‘Scarlett Johansson row has boosted Israeli settlement boycott, say activists’, 6 February 2014, available: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/06/scarlett-johansson-israeli-settlement-boycott-activists, accessed 10 February 2014.

Haaretz ‘The boycott is our Palestinian non-violent resistance’, 10 February 2014, available: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.573315, accessed 10 February 2014.

Haaretz, ‘Egypt’s army chief gives first account of his overthrow of Morsi’, 8 October 2013, available: http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.551314, accessed 31 January 2014.

Jerusalem Post, ‘Egyptian army warns Hamas over Sinai border’, 24 September 2013, available
http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Egypt-warns-Hamas-over-Sinai-border-326974
http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=656905

Ma’an News Agency, ‘UNRWA calls Gaza ‘disaster area,’ pleads for end to Israeli blockade’, 14 December 2013, available: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=657098, accessed 10 February 2014.

Middle-East Monitor, ‘Egypt-Gaza tunnels: the lifeline under threat’, 6 November 2013, available: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/middle-east/8169-egypt-gaza-tunnels-the-lifeline-under-threat, accessed 3 February 2014.

New York Times, ‘Egyptian soldiers in Sinai attack’, 20 November 2013, available: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/21/world/middleeast/egyptian-soldiers-die-in-sinai-attack.html?_r=0, accessed 3 February 2014.

The Palestinian Information Center, ‘Egypt’s Al-Sissi orders destruction for all tunnels to Gaza Strip’, 15 July 2013, available: LINK, accessed 31 January 2014.

RT, ‘US suspends food  and cash distribution, leaving Gaza destitute’, 5 April 2013, available: http://rt.com/news/gaza-unrwa-food-suspension-390/, accessed 10 February 2014.

United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), ‘The Humanitarian Impact of Reduced Access between Gaza and Egypt Situation Report, 23 September 2013, available: http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_gaza_sitrep_2013_09_23_english.pdf, accessed 3 February 2014.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), OPT Emergency Appeal 2014, available: http://www.unrwa.org/resources/emergency-appeals/opt-emergency-appeal-2014, accessed 10 February 2014.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 4 December 2013, available: http://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/official-statements/adversity-need-renewed-commitment, accessed 4 February 2014.

UNRWA, Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place? August 2012, available: http://www.unrwa.org/userfiles/file/publications/gaza/Gaza%20in%202020.pdf, accessed 4 February 2014.

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ipsc_logo_smallThis article was published by the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign on 27 March 2014. To get involved and become part of the Irish movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for their human, national and democratic rights, click here to join, or for more information visit us at www.ipsc.ie.

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Cover Photo: A family in Gaza stranded by floods. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam.

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