Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 July 2006
Issue No. 803
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

How long can Israel get away with it? This is the question, two weeks into an offensive on Gaza that Israeli military personnel say may last for months, writes Erica Silverman

Catalogue of horror

Israel's Gaza offensive is prohibited by international law as both collective punishment and a reversal of the duties of an occupying power

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As Israeli brutality intensifies, the public outcry against Israel around the world increases. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended an anti-Israel rally after Friday prayer in Tehran and masked activists burn Israeli and US flags in Buenos Aires during a demonstration in front of the Israeli Embassy

Israel continues to strike densely populated civilian areas and destroy infrastructure within the Gaza Strip as part of their effort to halt Qassam rocket fire into Israel and to retrieve a captured soldier, despite EU and UN warnings of a grave humanitarian crisis. Life inside Gaza was already in crisis. Palestinian households across the Strip are now without electricity and water in sweltering heat. Coupled with fuel shortages and a defunct sanitation system that leaves a stomach- wrenching odour hovering thick in the humidity, the situation is dire. Healthcare facilities, already lacking supplies are operating on generators, while heavy artillery fire from Israeli tanks has forced many Gazans from their homes or into hiding. There will be no reprieve vows Israel, until the 19-year-old Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian resistance fighters has been released.

Seven Palestinians were killed, including three teenagers playing soccer, and another 18 wounded by Israeli forces Monday alone in Gaza, raising the Palestinian death toll to over 50. On Saturday, Israel increased its presence along Gaza's eastern border. That night an Israeli artillery shell killed a mother and two of her children in their home on the outskirts of Gaza City, according to Palestinian witnesses. Four other children from the same family were wounded, one son now left deaf from the explosion.

The major Israeli incursion plowing ahead for over two weeks has destroyed Gaza's only power station and three major bridges inside the Strip. Power supplies are intermittent, leaving many residents with electricity for only a few hours a day. One of the most densely populated areas on earth, most Gazans live in high-rise buildings that require power to pump water into homes. Some buildings are operating on generators, although fuel supplies are dwindling according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that supplies around two- thirds of the Gaza population with emergency food aid and cash assistance.

Israel has closed the Nahal Oz pipelines for days at a time, forcing UNRWA to bring in 30,000 litres of diesel via Karni crossing Thursday.

While an American company that insured Gaza's power station might pay for damage repair, according to UNRWA director for Gaza, John Ging, it will take about one year for the station to be fully operational. To restore partial operations will take six months, as the transformers have to be redeveloped. Meanwhile, circuit breaks cannot even be repaired due to close proximity to Israeli forces. "Sewage has not been pumped through treatment plants for several weeks. Instead it is being pumped in the sea," according to UNRWA Commissioner General Karen Abu Zayad, ironically contaminating Israeli shores and possibly Egyptian ones. Virtually no fish are available in local markets due to the presence of Israeli naval vessels along the coast and the loss of refrigeration facilities. Some 35,000 Palestinians working in the fishing industry have been affected, according to the World Food Programme.

Meanwhile, Israeli tanks and bulldozers withdrew from northern Gaza early Saturday after a two-day incursion, leaving behind a catalogue of destruction. The northern quarter of the Strip's infrastructure has been severely damaged while Israeli forces riddled homes and rooftop water tanks with bullet holes. Israeli tanks tour up the roads and cracked underground water pipes, reports Ging. "Farmers are trying to salvage destroyed crops after [Israeli] tanks ran across them. People are trying to come to grips with the consequences," he said.

"The general mood is one of fear and anger, but at the same time grief for all the innocent people who were murdered in cold blood," said 30-year-old Mohamed Abu Haloub from the northern town of Beit Lahya. "The [Israeli] tanks were only 300 metres from my home. We felt like we were in prison again and the random gunfire and the deployment frightened adults, let alone children." All to the backdrop of heavy artillery fire from Israeli tanks into open fields to prevent the launching of Qassams -- crudely home-made rockets that rarely cause injuries.

In the southern city of Rafah, over 1,000 residents have sought refuge in UNRWA schools after Israeli forces declared the area near the non-operational airport a closed military zone. Said Al-Astal, spokesperson for the Khan Yunis municipality, where fishing is the primary industry, estimates Khan Yunis has lost nearly $6 million to infrastructure damage and lost revenue following the Israeli incursions.

The psychological impact of the Israeli offensive is enormous. Eyad Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, which operates six clinics that have treated 15 per cent of the total Gazan population, reports his facilities have witnessed a dramatic increase in patients, particularly children traumatised by violence and bone rattling sonic booms created by low flying Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier. "Children are afraid to be alone. Bed wetting, depression and signs of regression in development are the most common problems," said Al-Sarraj. "People feel they are under siege, although there is a growing sense of defiance as people seek some form of moral victory over Israel," continued Al-Sarraj. As a result, Hamas is more popular than ever.

Meanwhile, has someone kidnapped President Mahmoud Abbas? This is a question many Palestinians are asking as Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh toured the sites of Israeli strikes and consoled hospitalised victims while Abbas fled to Ramallah. "How can a president escape when a nation is in such a situation? He should have stayed with the population in Gaza," asserted Al-Sarraj.

In the eyes of many, the president has failed to bring the issue of the nearly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israel detention centres before the international community, and has been unsuccessful in halting the firing of Qassams into Israel, central to the possibility of a renewed ceasefire and an obstacle to foreign investment in the Strip. Until recently, Hamas had largely observed a 16-month ceasefire.

The escalation of violence comes on top of an already critical situation. Unemployment has jumped to 40 per cent, and for four months' worth of Palestinian Authority salaries have gone unpaid, relied upon by 43 per cent of Gaza's population. Meanwhile, the closure of Karni Crossing -- Gaza's only commercial outlet -- has prohibited job creation and increased operating costs for businesses.

Beaches are empty, summer weddings have been cancelled, and Rafah Crossing, the only passenger exit, has been sealed shut as Gazans brace themselves for another round of violence and destruction.

When asked if the soldier's captors should release him to end the suffering, Abu Haloub replied, "the captors should hold this soldier to remind the world that there are more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli prisons, including women and children. There has to be something given in return if they want their soldier back alive."

Israeli violence in Gaza touches all aspects of infrastructure and the public psyche

Speaking from the presidential headquarters in Gaza City Friday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel's wave of incursions into Gaza had unleashed "new crimes against humanity", as he pleaded with the international community and the UN Security Council to pressure Israel to end "this destructive policy immediately".

Abbas accused Israel "of trying to collapse the Hamas government, while trying to bring down the Palestinian Authority wholesale", in destroying schools, a power plant, bridges, roads and government buildings.

Israeli forces began a major military offensive on the Gaza Strip 25 June, extracting a high price from the civilian population, including over 50 fatalities, purportedly to free an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian resistance fighters and to halt the firing of home-made Qassam rockets into Israel.

Israel decided to collectively punish the Gaza population by cutting off the supply of electricity, fuel, water, food staples and sewage treatment services. Hundreds of patients who received medical treatment in Egypt were stranded at the Rafah terminal along the Gaza-Egypt border for days, and ambulances inside the Strip cannot move freely due to the presence of Israeli forces and the destruction of all three major access bridges.

Gaza's southern population has been isolated from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City that provides treatment unavailable elsewhere. The World Health Organisation estimates that although hospitals and 50 per cent of primary healthcare centres have generators, fuel stocks will be depleted within two weeks.

"The Israeli air strikes on Gaza's only power plant have had a far-reaching impact on Gaza's hospitals, flour mills, water and sanitation systems. The strict controls imposed during past weeks on the passage of basic products into Gaza, including fuel, have aggravated the difficulties of the population," admonished UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan Saturday.

Israeli forces bombed the only power station in Gaza 28 June, destroying six transformers that supplied 43 per cent of Gaza's electricity. The rest of the electricity is supplied by Israel, increasing Palestinian dependence on Israel for basic services. The Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported, "civilians are disproportionately paying the price of this conflict," calling on Israel to keep the Nahal Oz fuel pipelines and Karni Crossing -- the only commercial entry point into Gaza -- open to meet humanitarian needs.

During a Sunday cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that this was a "war in which it is impossible to set time limits", as senior Israeli military officials predicted "Operation Summer Rains" was likely to last another two months.

Olmert intends to intensify and broaden the scope of military incursions into Gaza, but expressed trepidation since extreme measures could "threaten" Israeli's reputation in the international community. "We can carry out missions like James Bond and lose the support we have in the international community. In order to preserve this support we must act with patience and cool heads," he said.

"Israel has every right to hunt down the militants firing rockets into Israel and those who kidnapped their soldier. They do not have the right to target the civilian population in doing so," according to a senior US Army lawyer who served to administer protection to the civilian population in Iraq. "Blowing up the power supply does not degrade Hamas's military capabilities. It only makes the civilian population suffer to the point they may reject Hamas," said the officer, on condition of anonymity, noting that attacks may only be directed at military targets, not civilian objects.

Collective punishment violates international law, according to Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited." The Geneva Conventions, ratified by Israel, are designed to limit the barbarity of war by protecting civilians, medics, prisoners of war, and other persons who do not take part in direct fighting. Yet beyond condemnations issued by other states, there is no clear mechanism of enforcement vis-à-vis Israel.

"Clearly under the Geneva Conventions the occupying force has the duty to provide for and protect the population," said the US officer, although Israel claims Gaza is not longer occupied since unilateral withdrawal nearly a year ago. Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations, however, states that "a territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army." Autonomy in Gaza is a hard argument to make since the Palestinian Authority controls neither borders, imports and exports, nor rights of citizenship, while the population (even the president) is denied movement and access within the occupied territories and abroad.

"We have urged Israel not to damage the Gaza infrastructure and not to harm the civilian population -- but the root of the crisis is the kidnapping of the soldier, and his release would bring an end to the situation," Micaela Schweitzer-Blum, spokesperson for the US consul in Jerusalem, told Al-Ahram Weekly. (Legally speaking, in the context of belligerent occupation as well as war, one does not "kidnap", but rather captures an on-duty military officer).

So far the US has been absent from mediation efforts to end the standoff, despite calls for intervention by dovish Jewish lobbies like the Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek. US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld cancelled a planned trip to Israel scheduled for this week.

Qatar Thursday circulated a draft resolution to the UN Security Council demanding that Israel "cease its aggression against the Palestinian civilian population" in Gaza while condemning Israel's detention of dozens of Palestinian government officials. The resolution, tabled on behalf of Arab states and which made no mention of rocket attacks on Israel or the capture of the Israeli soldier, was rejected as one-sided after facing immediate opposition from the US and France, only garnering support from one or two members of the 15-nation council. The resolution called on Israel, as the occupying power, to "scrupulously abide by its obligations and responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions".

The new UN Human Rights Council did agree Thursday to send a fact-finding mission to the occupied Palestinian territories to probe human rights violations by Israel during an emergency session requested by Arab states. John Dugard, a South African lawyer responsible for the investigation, told the council that the US and other Quartet members had overlooked human right abuses by Israel. "I am concerned with the law, and here it is clear that Israel is in violation of the most fundamental norms of humanitarian law and human rights law," said Dugard.

To date, Israeli authorities have arrested 37 Hamas lawmakers from the West Bank. Does Israel, as an occupying power, have the right to arrest Palestinian lawmakers? According to the US legal officer quoted above, Israel can arrest criminals or those perceived to be a security threat. These lawmakers, however, are being charged for being members of Hamas.

"You can't bar Hamas as an organisation after you [Israel] let them take over the government through elections. And under international law you can't kidnap people to get your people back," said the officer.

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